Doghouse Roses : Stories by Steve Earle

In 1986, Steve Earle cut a path between the traditionalist movement in country music, spearheaded by Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis and the heartland, roots rock of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp to create a smart and raucous chart-topping rockabilly album from Nashville called Guitar Town. Two years later, he eschewed the country trimmings and left Music Row in the dust with Copperhead Row. The title cut charted high, as did the entire album on the rock charts. The record did even better in Europe, where Earle became a legitimate star.

However, by the early 1990s, Earle’s musical output had dried up like an ancient riverbed and he had to spend some time behind bars due to a nasty penchant he had acquired for narcotics, namely cocaine and heroin. But, instead of falling to the wayside ála original alt-country-rocker Gram Parsons, he miraculously kicked the habit.

Earle’s 1995 comeback album, Train-A-Comin’, an acoustic collection of literate, emotionally charged originals and several well-chosen covers, started a string of critical and commercial successes resulting in his own record label and a strong, global following.

Following the 2000 release of one of his strongest, most diversified albums, Transcendental Blues, Earle has now turned his brawny hands to literature. Doghouse Roses is a collection of short stories that at times resembles, yet ultimately exceeds, a thinly veiled collection of autobiographical road accounts of a fallen celebrity dragged down by the pressures of stardom and the temptations of free drugs and women.

Sorry, folks, this isn’t a transcript of a VH-1 Behind the Music episode. These are sturdy, colorful stories, brought to life with dynamic characters and carefully chosen details. The prose is plain spoken yet intelligent, humorous and heartwarming just like Earle’s tunes. However, you do not have to be a fan of Steve Earle the musician to enjoy his engaging brand of storytelling in print.

The titular tale, a third-person narrative about a has-been singer/songwriter trapped in L.A. and hooked on drugs, is the closest Earle comes to airing his dirty laundry in public. However, instead of allowing the story to sink into a woe-is-me tale of self-indulgence, Earle transforms it into a reflection on the power of love and its uncanny ability to continue burning long after its surroundings are reduced to no more than ashes.

On “Taneytown,” Earle aptly writes from the first person perspective of a poor, mentally retarded black boy. In it, Earle attacks intolerance without preaching, using the same approach again in “The Witness” (though, not quite as successfully), to express his views on our country’s use of the death penalty.

The central themes that bind the eleven stories are accountability, perseverance and pragmaticism – reminiscent of Walter Mosley’s sublime short story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.

Earle’s stories reflect life’s richest ironies with acerbic wit and a tender heart. Each page convincingly conveys an understanding that there is pain in life, but that today’s trials and tribulations could very well result in tomorrow’s happiness. Earle’s literary foray also serves as a reminder that we are all, regardless of creed or color, struggling down the same path of existence. He strikes a universal chord with the same demons that haunt all of us. Surmising that the only thing we can do to rise above our own inner-turmoil is try and aide our fellow brothers and sisters; enjoy the simple moments of joy in life; and do our best to treat our fellow human being how we ourselves would like to be treated, simple mantra expressed with keen insight and droll trappings (Houghton Mifflin 2001).

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