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."
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.