‘Copperhead Road’ by Steve Earle: Story Behind Timeless Ballad

by Keeli Parkey

Steve Earle’s timeless ballad Copperhead Road transports you to another time and place. Singing as the character John Lee Pettimore III, he takes you to an era of moonshiners and marijuana growers in the backwoods of East Tennessee.

“You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here. He only comes to town about twice a year,” Earle, who also wrote the song, sings. “He’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line. Everybody knew that he made moonshine.”

The song goes on to tell the story of Grandaddy’s troubles with the “revenue man” and how he dealt with it.

“‘Fore my time but I’ve been told. He never comes back from Copperhead Road,” Earle sings about the demise of the revenue man.

“Daddy” also made moonshine, but he perished in a car accident transporting a shipment to Knoxville.

“Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right,” Earle croons as his character realizing his father had died.

Steve Earle Continues Pettimore Family Saga

As the song continues, we learn that John Lee Pettimore III has been drafted into the U.S. Army and serves two tours in Vietnam. “They draft the white trash first, ’round here anyway,” Steve Earle sings in a lyric that highlights the Pettimore family’s perceived place in their Johnson County community.

Once returning from Vietnam, the song’s narrator follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him, but with a twist; instead of making moonshine, he plans to grow marijuana. “I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico. I just plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road,” he sings.

As the song ends, it appears that John Lee Pettimore III will face the same fate as his forebearers. “And now the D.E.A.’s got a chopper in the air. I wake up screaming like I’m back over there,” Earle sings. “I learned a thing or two from Charlie don’t you know. You’d better stay away from Copperhead Road.”

Steve Earle Releases ‘Copperhead Road’ in 1988

According to Songfacts, Copperhead Road was released in 1988 as the title track on Steve Earle’s third studio album. The song was a hit for Earle and reached number 10 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. More than one million digital copies of the song have sold.

Steve Earle reportedly started 1988, the year Copperhead Road was released, in a Dallas jail. It was a tumultuous time in the singer’s life and he expressed that on his answering machine. “This is Steve. I’m probably out shooting heroin, chasing 13-year-olds and beatin’ up cops,” his message said. “But I’m old and I tire easily, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

Also, Copperhead Road was the name of a real road located near Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee. The road’s name has been changed to Copperhead Hollow Road because the Copperhead Road signs were frequently stolen.