“Doghouse Roses” by Steve Earle

An acclaimed country music songwriter makes his fiction debut in a collection of stories straight from the bar at the Tip Top Lounge.

Topics: Country Music, Books,

Steve Earle is a passable guitar player, a good singer and a great, great songwriter. Now he’s written a book of short stories.

This job switch might seem like quite a leap when you’re leaning on the bar at the Tip Top Lounge and trying to imagine the kid onstage putting down his Telecaster and making with the literary licks. But Earle, like all good country songwriters, was writing short stories from the moment he discovered how well “you” rhymes with “blue.”

As Billy, the narrator of the story “Billy the Kid” and the owner of a Nashville bar called the Blue Room, notes about the songwriters who used to hang out there: “The best writers routinely cranked out three-and-a-half-minute jewels that owed as much to Tennessee Williams as to Hank,” he says. “Stories about coal mines and moonshine and movin’ it on down the line.”

Earle himself has written plenty of songs about coal mines and moonshine and movin’ it on down the line, which, as iconic signifiers of American three-chord emotion, actually owe more to Hank than to Tennessee. But he’s also mixed into his songs the detailed observations of the short story writer. “I laid my last $10 down though I didn’t need a thing,” he wrote (and sang) in a song about longing for a cashier, “just to touch sweet Carrie Brown when she handed me my change.”

In a song called “Billy and Bonnie,” he packed more character development into two couplets than a lot of writers get into two chapters: “Billy was 17 and mean as hell/Bonnie said she was 30, it was hard to tell/Billy met Bonnie on a Saturday night/At the dirt track races, it was love at first sight.”

You Might Also Like

If Earle’s songs sometimes read like short stories, his short stories sometimes read like songs. The themes are big, the conclusions final. “Billy the Kid,” for example, is about a hotshot writer named Billy Batson who makes “the best record ever recorded in Nashville,” only to meet a tragic fate, as does the record. Think “John Henry’s Pencil”: There lies a songwritin’ man, lord. One of the stories, “Taneytown,” about a black kid killing a white one in a racist Maryland town, is actually a song from Earle’s album “El Corazón” in narrative form.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. None of the stories in “Doghouse Roses” have been published before. They haven’t been shaped or approved by the small magazine or mainstream monthly editors. There’s an appealing sort of innocence to them. Not for this troubadour turned scribbler the ambiguous final sentence, the moody, leave-you-thinking coda. At the conclusion of one story I found myself thinking, “Yo, Steve, what’s with the happy ending?”

And happy or no, these stories end, baby. “A year and a half after that, Judge Beecher retired to Florida,” begins the windup of “The Red Suitcase,” a good story that seems to be about a small-town man who’s “a little slow,” but is actually about the death of the town. “He died three years later, eight days short of his eightieth birthday. Thurman Rose went on to become district attorney and was eventually elected judge.” Earle does not leave you wondering.

The title, “Doghouse Roses,” refers to those single, plastic-sheathed roses sold at supermarket checkout stands that men buy for their wives when they’re in the doghouse. The main character of the title story is a thinly veiled version of Earle, a critics’ darling country rocker with a cult audience who sinks into desperate drug addiction, loses everything, then manages a comeback.

In fact, much of this book seems to be based on Earle’s existence, slightly altered. There are a lot of junkies and a lot of traveling men — smugglers, musicians, hitchhikers. Almost every character, in fact, is far from home, even if that just means living in a different part of Nashville from where he grew up. Write what you know, they say, and Earle has done that. You can learn a lot about Music Row and the junkie lifestyle, among other things, by reading “Doghouse Roses.”

So is Steve Earle as good a short story writer as he is a songwriter? No. But it’s not really a fair question. He’s moonlighting here, and for a guy working a second job, he’s pretty good at it.

Our next pick: A white woman faces ugly truths about the black housekeeper who raised her

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>