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Steve Earle Talks Opiates, Autism and Stolen Street Signs

KNOXVILLE - Steve Earle's topped country album charts with his debut album "Guitar Town" in 1986. Two years later "Copperhead Road" sold more than 500,000 units, but some law enforcement officers weren't big fans.

"They changed the names of nearly all the Copperhead Roads in these mountains because people kept stealing the signs," Earle said. "There was actually a sheriff somewhere and I don't think it was Tennessee, I think it was North Carolina that actually tried to take legal action against me to recoup all the money from all the signs that they had to replace."

The title track of the "Copperhead Road" directly tied to East Tennessee with lines about the "Johnson County Sheriff" and running moonshine to Knoxville, but Earle says he had no idea there was actually a Copperhead Road in Johnson County, Tennessee.

After the "Copperhead Road" album released one more album before his drug habit caught up with him.

"When 'Guitar Town' came out in '86 I was already using. It got worse because I had more money and I traveled to places with better drugs," Earle said.

Earle put out three more albums, included RIAA Gold certified "Copperhead Road," over the next four years, but by the end of 1991 he was homeless.

"I wrote a lot of really good songs when I was using, but that was before the wheels came off. There was four and a half years at the peak of it that I didn't write anything at all," Earle said.

During the time his addition took over he went to jail for possessing heroin.

"I didn't get clean because they locked me up. I got clean because a judge decided to let me go to a treatment center," Earle said. "When I got there I thought I'd walk out. It got me out jail, but while I was there something happened that was kind of like a miracle and I decided I didn't want to die."

Earle says the film "My Name is Bill W" sparked his recovery and his grandfather became his hero. Earle still calls his sponsor and also sponsors other recovering addict, but acknowledges the drugs on the street are more lethal today than when he pledged to become sober 22 years ago.

"One of the things that popped into my head immediately was - wow. If I went back out there now I could die - really quickly. They cut heroin with drugs that aren't heroin that are way stronger, but them some people buy those drugs directly and the market's been flooded with it," Earle said. "I don't think we've seen anything like this. It's treatment, treatment, treatment. That's the only answer there ever has been to that problem."

Despite greater potency and higher risk for drug users today, Earle refuses to give up hope.

"We could see this as a hopeless situation that we're in right now, but I'm a recovering heroin addict. I can't afford to believe in hopeless cases or lost causes because I was considered to be just that. I'm an optimist," Earle said. "I'm 62 years old and have a 7-year-old son. I'm obviously an optimist."

His 7-year-old son is one of the driving forces behind Earle's rigorous touring schedule. His son John Henry has nonverbal autism.

"I want to stay home more, but it's mainly because I need the money to keep John Henry where he is," Earle said.

Earle moved to New York from Nashville twelve years ago. Along with theatre (Earle is outspoken about his obsession with Shakespearean actor and director Mark Rylance), New York City's programs for autism keep Earle's home base in the Big Apple.

"I think the next big activism horizon for me is making sure everybody has the services that are available to John Henry, and that everybody has the money that pays for them," Earle said. "I wouldn't be able to afford where John Henry goes to school - I've been married too many times to be able to afford anything like that. His school is a lot of money and about 90 percent of it is paid for by my neighbors in New York."

Though a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter and Trump critic, Earle says his latest album "So You Wanna be an Outlaw," is his least political album ever.

"This record is sort of a look back because it's based on 'Honky Tonk Heroes,' which is a Waylon Jennings record that I love and some other stuff that was formative for me, but it's also the future of this band and the future of my records," Earle said.

For "So You Wanna be an Outlaw" Steve Earle and the Dukes a steel guitar to the mix for the first time in a long time.

"My guess is the next record is going to be just as country as this one, and way more political, which might be really interesting," Earle said.

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