Steve Earle: The Story of Copperhead Road
Most people have no idea that Johnson County, Tennessee is located in Tennessee's north east corner, bordering Virginia and North Carolina or that alcohol was prohibited there until 2018. They don’t know that male prison inmates at the Northeast Correctional Complex make up over seven percent of the county’s population.
However, people around the world know that John Lee Pettimore III lived there, and that his family made moonshine down a mountain road.
Copperhead Road will forever be a part of country-inspired rock music thanks to Steve Earle’s album and title track, ‘Copperhead Road’; a track that thrust him into superstardom and one that he still plays live to this day at virtually every show.
"I still play (it), pretty much every night cuz I wanna get out of there alive,” he explained in an interview with boom 97.3 in May 2017.
This is an understandable sentiment. The first time I saw him in concert, I was looking forward to hearing him play it live, and he sped through it as fast as he could. The 4:29 runtime was cut in half, at best. I was surprised, but I understood it. I stood and applauded at the end. I think I was the only one, though. Nostalgia fuels selfishness, I suppose.
One Night On The News
While working at a pizza parlor in Nashville in 1975, he heard a news story about a 76-year-old woman who had been arrested in Elizabeth, North Carolina. Authorities raided a large marijuana grow operation on a plantation in the mountains. Having already been familiar with making and selling moonshine, they knew how profitable illegal substances were. Her two sons just returned from the Vietnam war with bags of marijuana seeds from Columbia and Mexico, so they decided to grow pot. This story turned him on to the story of John Lee Pettimore III.
The Pettimore family were bootleggers and moonshine-makers. They stayed away from the local town; John III’s grandfather only traveled to town to get supplies for the operation. He drove an old police car he purchased at an auction in order to avoid suspicion. According to the family, one day a “revenue man” attempted to arrest John II, stopping him on Copperhead Road on his way to get supplies. The man was never seen again.
John III joins the Army on his birthday, hoping to be drafted, and serves two tours of duty in Vietnam. He decides to use the Copperhead Road land to grow marijuana, using seeds from Colombia and Mexico. He took inspiration from the Viet Cong in an effort to escape the prying eyes of the DEA.
Maybe ironically, Copperhead Road was his final resting place, as he was killed in a car crash on his way to Knoxville with a weekly shipment of moonshine.
A Heavier Sound was Born
While in London producing a record, he “crashed a cocktail party one night.” It was a launch party for an MCA imprint label that David Simone was starting. He walked up to Simone and Irving Azoff - who ran MCA Records at the time - and said he wanted to be on the label. Azoff smiled at him and said, “Uni (Records) isn’t going to be about country; it’s going to be hip-hop and rock and roll.” Earle replied that he was going to make a rock record.
“My first record did pretty well, but it became obvious to me that country music radio wasn’t going to keep playing the things (I wanted to play)..” he explained.
“I learned a lot about recording from him. Things that I still do to this day,” Earle told boom 97.3.
The iconic bagpipes that welcome the listener to the album aren’t bagpipes at all. The sound was produced by a custom analog keyboard synth patch by Earle’s keyboardist, Ken Moore. Earle has also admitted it was the first time he played mandolin, and he only knew two chords.
Released as a single in 1988 from his third album, ‘Copperhead Road,’ its become a modern day outlaw country anthem that cemented his place in music history. It reached number 10 on the U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and has sold over a million digital downloads as of 2017. The album reached number 56 on the Billboard Album Chart.
Its staying power can be credited to the honesty and tragedy of the song, and the blending of classic three-chord country western structure and narrative into more mainstream rock. It’s been covered by, and has inspired musicians across multiple genres since its release 34 years ago.
Even American metal band DevilDriver included a version of the song on their album 2018 ‘Outlaws 'til the End Vol. 1’
His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm, The Highwaymen, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Shawn Colvin, Bob Seger, Percy Sledge, and Emmylou Harris. Steve has appeared in film and television, most notably as recurring characters in HBO's The Wire and Treme. He’s also penned a novel, a play, and a book of short stories. He's won multiple Grammy Awards and has released 21 studio albums to date. His music has crossed into multiple genres and will continue to evolve, I'm certain.
It’s likely that none of these amazing accomplishments will overshadow the stamp that ‘Copperhead Road’ has put on his resume.