About the Song
Released in 1988, “Copperhead Road” is a song penned and recorded by American country music artist Steve Earle. It was released as the first single and title track from his third studio album of the same name.
The song reached number 10 on the U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. In addition, it was Earle’s highest-peaking song to date on that chart in the United States. The song has sold 1.04 million digital copies in the US as of September 2015.
The Creation of the Song
Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City, Tennessee. 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.
The song tells the story of a soldier who returns home from Vietnam and starts trafficking marijuana.
The song’s narrator is named John Lee Pettimore III, whose father and grandfather were both active in moonshine making and bootlegging in rural Johnson County, Tennessee. Visiting the town only rarely, Pettimore’s grandfather would buy supplies for a still he had set up in a hollow along Copperhead Road. On the other hand, Pettimore’s father hauled the moonshine to Knoxville each week in an old police cruiser he bought at a surplus auction. According to the narrator, a Revenue Man wanted John Sr. “Real Bad” and went up to get him.
The lyric “He never come back from Copperhead Road” implies either the Revenuer was ambushed and killed by John Sr, or John Sr. was killed. John Jr. himself is killed in a fiery car crash while driving to Knoxville with a weekly shipment.
Furthermore, Pettimore enlists in the Army on his birthday, believing he will soon be drafted 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. Having learned a few tricks from the Viet Cong while fighting overseas, he resolves not to be caught by the DEA, specifically meaning that he has set up booby traps of the kind employed by the Communist enemy.
An ‘interesting‘ year for Earle: What really happened?
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, and had to deal with various legal and business issues.
At one point, Steve 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.”
To note, 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.
About the Album of the Same Name
The third studio album by Steve Earle, Copperhead Road was released in 1988. The album is often referred to as Earle’s first “rock record.“
Earle himself calls it the world’s first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass, and the January 26, 1989 review of the album by Rolling Stone suggested that the style be called “power twang.“
The songs on side one of the album reflect Earle’s politics: the title track attacks the War on Drugs, and the song “Snake Oil” compares then president Ronald Reagan to a traveling con man and draws attention to his “legacy of creative deceit.“
Unlike some issues-oriented musicians, however, Earle does not limit himself to political material. The second side of the album consists of more personal, slower tempo works: love songs (“Even When I’m Blue”) and a holiday offering (“Nothing but a Child”).
Watch Steve Earle rock this outlaw country song, “Copperhead Road.”