Classic concert: Steve Earle To Hell and Back (1996)

Steve Earle beat the odds, and he knows it. “I was the ultimate functional heroin addict for a number of years,” he says, introducing himself to a MTV audience that might not be intimately familiar with his life story and ferocious brand of country-rock music. “I got clean because I got locked up. If that hadn’t happened, I would have died. I just made my first album straight this year.”

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On June 25, 1996, as part of a court order, Steve Earle performed a live concert for prison inmates at Tennessee’s Cold Creek Correctional Facility where Earle was incarcerated in 1994. The concert entitled To Hell and Back aired on MTV on August 17, 1996. Steve reunited with his backing group the Dukes for the concert, and it was an incredible show.

Earle gives the performance of a lifetime  “This ain’t gonna be a beach party,” he says in front of an appreciative audience of convicts who had just endured two days in a prison-wide lockdown.

It’s a 46 minute ride into enlightenment, the testimonials from the inmates are truly harrowing. It’s a bleak environment and you can sense the despair. Earle rips through the songs with an urgency that suggests he needs to get out of there. He gives an exceptional performance and the only thing I can compare it with are the legendary Folsom prison and San Quentin shows with Johnny Cash.


“Don’t go anywhere”
– Steve Earle

Band (The Dukes): Earle, Kelley Looney, Mark Stuart, David Steele, Custer.

Steve Earle talks candidly between the songs, about his 1994 stretch on drug possession charges. He has a message and it seems like his stay in prison changed Earle. He started writing more openly political and against the death penalty.

“Me and a friend of mine had a shotgun that we where gonna swap for marihuana, and my friend chose to shoot the man instead of dealing with him. I was there so I was automatically guilty.”
– Joseph (22), sentence 20 years.

The Inmates welcome Steve Earle as one of their own, and he is, and he looks the part, jeesus, he looks like a tough motherfucker! The songs are run through with a nervous haste, he’s ripping  through them as though his life depended on it. It’s much more rock than country, hell, it borders on punk rock. The “MTV editing” just adds to the frenetic pace and it is strangely suitable.

“Even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know he did his best”
When he sings the song Ellis Unit One, the crowd is eerily still. These are people who knows what the lyrics means, and it means a lot more to them than to us on the outside. It’s incredible to witness the sense of awareness this song invokes. It’s tense and it’s poignant.

“I’m from Texas, I used to be very proud of that, but death row in Texas is called Ellis Unit one and they executed 23 of the 56 human beeings executed in this country last year so I’m nowhere near as proud of Texas as I used to be…”
– Steve Earle

The Set:
I feel alright
Hard-core trubadour
The Devil’s right hand
More than I can do
South Nashville Blues
Ellis Unit One
The Unrepentant
Copperhead Road
Guitar Town
It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry (Bob Dylan).

Recorded 17th august 1996.

The Forty six minutes taped performance couldn’t be any more appropriately titled, or more entertaining and illuminating.

Rock stars and drugstore cowboys like to sing about the hard times they’ve seen. Unlike most of these posers, Steve Earle really has seen them.

Seek it out folks, it’s a true classic!

“Until I see you again, walk slow, drink lots of water, sleep as much as you can and do your own time, you know what I’m saying. This is a Bob Dylan song, see ya…”

– Hallgeir

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