Steve Earle is an American rock, country and folk singer-songwriter, record producer, author and actor. Earle began his career as a songwriter in Nashville and released his first EP in 1982. His breakthrough album was the 1986 album Guitar Town. Since then Earle has released 15 other studio albums and received three Grammy awards. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories.
Earle was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and grew up near San Antonio, Texas. His father, Jack Earle, was an air traffic controller. Although he was born in Virginia where his father was stationed, the family returned to Texas before Earle’s second birthday. They moved several times but Earle grew up primarily in the San Antonio area.
Earle began learning the guitar at the age of 11 and was placed in a talent contest at his school at age 13. He is reported to have run away from home at age 14 to follow his idol, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt around Texas. Earle was “rebellious” as a youngster and dropped out of school at the age of 16. He moved to Houston with his 19-year-old uncle, who was also a musician, where he married and worked odd jobs. While in Houston Earle finally met Van Zandt, who became his hero and role model.
“Copperhead Road” is a song written and recorded by American country music artist Steve Earle. It was released in 1988 as the lead single and title track from the album Copperhead Road. The song reached number 10 on the U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and was Earle’s highest-peaking song to date on the rock chart in the United States. The song has sold 1.04 million digital copies in the US as of September 2015.
The song’s narrator is named John Lee Pettimore, whose father and grandfather were both active in moonshine making and bootlegging in rural Johnson County, Tennessee. Pettimore’s grandfather visited town only rarely, in order to buy supplies for a still he had set up in a hollow along Copperhead Road, and he had taken precautions to stop federal agents from finding it or apprehending him. Pettimore’s father hauled the moonshine to Knoxville each week, but was killed in an accident during one of these runs.
Pettimore enlists in the Army on his birthday, believing he will soon be drafted (“They draft the white trash first ’round here anyway”), and serves two tours of duty in Vietnam. Once he returns home, he decides to use the Copperhead Road land to grow marijuana, rather than produce moonshine (“I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico”). Having learned a few tricks from the Viet Cong while fighting overseas, he resolves not to be caught by the DEA.
Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City, Tennessee, although it has since been renamed Copperhead Hollow Road, owing to theft of road signs bearing the song’s name. The song also inspired a popular line dance, timed to the same beat, and has been used as the theme music for the Discovery Channel reality series Moonshiners.
Copperhead Road – Earle
Well my name’s John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before
You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here
He only came to town about twice a year
He’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
Everybody knew that he made moonshine
Now the revenue man wanted Grandaddy bad
He headed up the holler with everything he had
It’s before my time but I’ve been told
He never came back from Copperhead Road
Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the Mason’s Lodge
Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
Just shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
Well him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin’ sound
Well the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right
He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road
I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first,’round here anyway
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road
Well the D.E.A.’s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I’m back over there
I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
The original moonshiner’s ballad was made famous by Robert Mitchum in the song, The Ballad of Thunder Road, that he wrote for the movie of the same name.
- Audio from the 1988 album, Copperhead Road: