Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself.
The scenario unfolding in this song is a classic trope in country music; a drunken man staggering on the front lawn of his long-suffering girlfriend or wife, calling on her feelings of pity and obligation to let him back into her life after yet another betrayal and countless demonstrations of his brutality and callousness towards her. The figurative “song” he sings under her window is a common one as sung by the user, the taker, the man who retains a level of familiarity and habit enough to remain to be a perversely compelling force in her life. Perhaps there’s a dose of unhealthy co-dependence thrown in for good measure. Will she let him in again? Or will she resist and choose something better for herself?
An interesting dynamic in this song is the voice of the narrator, who floats above the unfolding drama in the form of Earle’s voice like the hard-bitten angel on her shoulder putting to her the stark truth of what she is facing in that moment; either the continuation of a hurtful cycle, or the refusal to participate in it in favour of a new life on her own. In this, we find a song that is in support of the woman who has the power to change her circumstances, and with every right to take control over her own life.
In some ways, this is the antithesis of traditional country music morality. The disembodied narrator is helping her to question the standard edict of “stand by your man”. As much as this song is sonically built to blast out of the truck radios of men just like the one depicted in “Hard-Core Troubadour”, it espouses values that these men do not, and perhaps even cannot consider; how his behaviour causes damage to the people, and more specifically the women, in his life. The troubadour here is no folk hero. The song he sings about the obligations the woman supposedly has to him is to be resisted and rejected. The question still remains for the woman in this scenario; how much pain and suffering is it reasonable to take before its time to put one’s foot down to say “no more”?
That’s what makes me think that the song is a product of soul-searching on the part of its writer, one who makes his living as a troubadour and also with a personal life fraught by trouble and instability. Given his recent past by this point, this is a sobering set of thoughts for Steve Earle to set to music. Even without his personal context, “Hard-Core Troubadour” is a stark reflection on how destructive patterns of behaviour cause harm to those beyond the one exhibiting them. It’s also one about knowing when it’s time to let go of a person who has become an agent of pain and suffering in one’s life, and to not be pulled into their maelstrom any further. By 1996, Steve Earle knew the score on that, too.
In this, this song can be interpreted as an expression of self-awareness by its author, and the idea that sometimes we find ourselves playing the role of the villain in the lives of others even if we don’t mean to do so.
Steve Earle is an active singer-songwriter, record producer, and author today. You can catch up to his recent activities at steveearle.com. You can also read his collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, containing tales that deal with many similar themes which are found here in this song.