Brilliant song by Steve Earle. I became a fan of Steve Earle when I heard “I Aint Never Satisified” off of the Exit 0 album. Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City, Tennessee. It has since been renamed Copperhead Hollow Road, owing to the theft of road signs bearing the song’s name.
What is interesting is Earle tells a story of three generations, of three different eras, and shows how they intersect all in one song.
This song peaked at #10 in the Billboard Mainstream Charts, #45 in the UK, and #12 in Canada in 1988.
Earle himself called the album the world’s first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass.
When you wrote things like “Copperhead Road,” did you know you had something that would be a signature song?
Steve Earle: Yeah. I did. That song I did. “Guitar Town,” I didn’t. I just thought I was writing a song that was going to open my tour and open my record, because I’d seen Springsteen come out and open the show with “Born in the U.S.A.” on that tour. That’s really when I started writing that album, the day after I saw that tour. But it had such a utilitarian reason to exist for me that I thought that was it. So I was shocked when they made it a single and shocked when it was a hit. But “Copperhead” I knew.
Copperhead Road is a real road in East Tennessee where moonshine was made and two generations later, marijuana was grown. The song tells the story of a soldier who returns home from Vietnam and starts trafficking marijuana.
Copperhead Road is a highly acclaimed album that came after an interesting year for Earle: he spent New Year’s Day of 1988 in a Dallas jail charged with assaulting a policeman, had to deal with various legal and business issues, and at one point had a message on his answering machine that said, “This is Steve. I’m probably out shooting heroin, chasing 13-year-olds and beatin’ up cops. But I’m old and I tire easily, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” He also married his fifth wife around the time the album was released.
Along with “Guitar Town,” this is one of Earle’s signature songs. When he wrote it, he knew it would catch on.
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