Labeled as a country singer, the folksy Earle tells stories of hard nights and lonely days through song.
"Everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan really admire him as songwriter. He's really one of the best songwriters we have," said Jason Fine, deputy editor of Rolling Stone magazine.
Growing up in Houston, Earle developed a passion for music. He moved to Nashville at 20 and found work as a songwriter. Eleven years later, Earle finally gained notice with his 1986 breakthrough "Guitar Town" and followed it up with a rapid succession of critically acclaimed records.
In 1989 he found rock success with "Copperhead Road," but that was followed by a serious battle with cocaine and heroin. The self-proclaimed hardcore troubadour hit rock bottom, peddled his guitar collection and took what he described as a vacation in the ghetto. His addiction led to a prison stint in 1994. He's been sober now for 13 years.
"Most people, for the most part, enable their own addictions," he told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "It's like people get it when they get it, and there's not much you can do about it. I mean, you can, you know, it's one of those things, it's heartbreaking to watch, and, I have no idea. I have to answer the question pretty often, like why I'm still here, and a lot of people that I really love aren't. And because I did this for a long time. And it took me a long time, took me until I was almost 40 years old to get it. And I got away with it for a long time, but it worked out the way that it worked out, and I'm still here, I guess I'm supposed to be here."
Both Earle and his career made a strong recovery. He re-emerged in the mid '90s with a series of albums, cranking out eight in 12 years.
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His music reflects his strong political views. In 2002, he made headlines with "John Walker's Blues," a song about the American captured in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban.
He has left Tennessee and his guitar town days behind, and made a new life with his sixth wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, in New York City.
"I have always been very taken by people who are obviously committed to their art, just for art's sake," she said. "And he's definitely that."
Earle's in the best of places, he's found love and a home and an unquestionable legacy in the world of music.
"There's a whole school of American rock called country rock," Fine said. "And Steve Earle is really the guy who defined that genre. There's a lot of people who owe him a great debt."