Born in Fort Monroe, VA, but raised near San Antonio, TX, Steve Earle is the son of an air-traffic controller. At the age of 11, he received his first guitar and, by the time he was 13, he had become proficient enough to win a talent contest at his school. Though he showed a talent for music, he was a wild child, often getting in trouble with local authorities. Furthermore, his rebellious, long-haired appearance and anti-Vietnam war stance was scorned by local country fans. After completing the eighth grade, Earle dropped out school and, at the age of 16, he left home with his uncle Nick Fain, and began traveling across the state. Eventually, he settled in Houston at the age of 18, where he married his first wife Sandie and began working odd jobs. While he was in Houston, he met singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker, who would become Earle's foremost role model and inspiration. A year later, Earle moved to Nashville.
While he was in Nashville, Earle worked blue-collar jobs during the day; during the night, he wrote songs and played bass in Guy Clark's backing band, appearing on a cut on Clark's 1975 album Old No. 1. Steve stayed in Nashville for several years, making connections within the industry and eventually landing a job as a staff writer for the publisher Sunbury Dunbar. Patty Loveless and Johnny Lee recorded Earle's songs and Elvis Presley was scheduled to cut one of Steve's songs, but he never showed up at the session; Earle also appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film, Nashville. After staying in Nashville for a few years, he grew tired of the city and returned back to Texas.