“Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle

The titular road plays an important economic role in the lives of the family of the vocalist, even for generations actually. For example, it is somewhere along Copperhead Road where John Lee Pettimore III ( i.e. the narrator’s grandfather) used to process moonshine. In other words, ol’ granddad was an illegal alcohol producer. He plied his trade during the Prohibition Era, which lasted throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. So that means the vocalist himself would be akin to a Baby Boomer, which is something we’ll get to later.

His grandfather was obviously a tough fellow. As legend has it, when the law (as in taxman) headed up Copperhead Road to confront him, said individual never returned home. The vocalist only saw “Granddaddy… about twice a year”. This was when he came down to the ‘hood to purchase certain items he needed to produce the alcohol.

Then, it was John’s father, as in John II, who was responsible for transporting the finished product “down to Knoxville” on a “weekly” basis. He did so using a police car he purchased “at an auction”. So apparently, others on the road would actually mistake it for an official law enforcement vehicle. This explains for instance why John II was seemingly never confronted in transit, even though “you could smell the whiskey burning down Copperhead Road” when he was out doing his thing. 

However, the local police became aware of the family business, as “the sheriff” rolled up on them once “in the middle of the night”.

The Narrator

Meanwhile, going back to the generation that the vocalist himself was born into, it would appear that he ended up getting drafted into the US Army , fresh after turning 18. He was a prime candidate because he comes from a “White trash”, i.e. poor Caucasian-American, background. He ended up serving “two tours of duty in Vietnam”.

As illustrated in the movie American Gangster for instance, there were actually major drug plantations in Vietnam at the time. So it was there where the vocalist seems to have learned how to grow weed. So now he imports “seed from Colombia and Mexico”, brings it up to Tennessee – where it has been deduced that the titular Copperhead Road is located. It was here he began some illicit production, or shall we say growing of his own. 

Resultantly he is dealing with his own paranoia. His paranoia comes not only from the US Drug Enforcement Agency straight but also having flashbacks to Vietnam whenever their helicopter flies by. 

In conclusion he depicts “Copperhead Road” as a dangerous place. In his eyes, he sees it as a location where for instance you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a cop nor, for that matter it would seem, a drug dealer.


The presentation of the above narrative is pretty simple, and it’s not abundantly clear what, if any, message this piece is meant to relay. But what it does illustrate in the very least is that there are some serious, even generational hustlers out there in the backwoods where White Americans dwell also. 

Indeed this song does fall under the country genre, where in reality such topics are standard, though in a way where the race of the subject is usually inferred (or already known if it’s a historical figure) as opposed to being stated forthrightly, as in this piece. 

But such an observation is not to imply that this is actually a race-based song. Rather what it illustrates, most basically, is that there are various types of misfortunes – i.e. coming from a criminal family, being drafted to fight in Vietnam and then having nothing to show for it afterwards besides PTSD – which one can be born into in America, in a manner of speaking.

Lyrics to Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road"

Facts about “Copperhead Road”

Steve Earle is a country singer from Texas. He has a personal discography dating back to the early-1980s. Between now and then he has dropped an impressive 21 studio albums.

“Copperhead Road” is the title track from the third project on that list. The song itself was issued through Uni Records as its lead single on 17 October 1988. 

This track marks one of Earle’s most notable successes. It is actually the highest he ever reached on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Here, the single peaked at number 10.

Accordingly, this track is recognized as one of the signature songs of Steve Earle’s lengthy career. In fact it proved so popular that real-life “Copperhead Road” signs began to be stolen en masse. This became so severe that some of said roads had to be renamed. The state of North Carolina even legally confronted the singer in an attempt to make him pay for the cost of having to do so.

Tony Vanden Ende directed this track’s music video. 

The song itself was written by Steve Earle, who also produced it. In that latter sense, he worked in conjunction with Tony Brown.

To note the character the vocalist portrays, John Lee Pettimore III, is not an actual historical figure.

Copperhead Road

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