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Tennessee Truth or Tall Tale: Copperhead Road

11:18 PM, May 23, 2012   |    comments
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Back in the '80s, Rolling Stone called a now-classic country rock song "power twang."

Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" and its music video tell the story of three generations of the same family: two bootleggers, and one who turned to a different illegal activity.

Even to this day, there's an ongoing fanbase battle over the possible real-life setting of the song.

Lyrics reference Knoxville, a county name you can find in several states including Tennessee, and then of course, the biggest clue of all, the supposed Copperhead Road itself.

So, what's the story behind the song?

Phil William's career in radio spans 30 years, and as a DJ, his playlists once included Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road." He says it's a story some just couldn't get enough of.

"It had all the great ingredients. It talked about moonshine and heading down to Knoxville with a weekly load, and then it talked about marijuana, and a lot of our listeners seemed to enjoy that at the time," explained Williams.

More than 150 miles away from Knoxville, high in the mountains, you'll find Johnson County, Tennessee. It's known for sweeping views and high valleys, and some say the county serves as the setting for Earle's rough and rowdy rock-and-roll song.

Certain lyrics match places around the community.

"Well, you know everybody listened to it. Of course they used the Johnson County sheriff's wrote on the side of their car that they ran moonshine with. They mentioned the Masonic Hall and all that," said Sheriff Mike Reece.

But above all, Johnson County has the iconic road where Earle's tale of moonshine, marijuana and revenuers went down.

The county sheriff knows that first hand.

"I don't know of another Copperhead Road -- there could be somewhere, but this is our Copperhead Road."

The name Copperhead Road is on mailboxes along the road, but don't' expect to find a street sign. Certain die-hard music fans make that nearly impossible.

"As fast as they put them up, they take them down."

Even more than 20 years after the song hit airwaves, the posts are bare because fans are still taking the Copperhead Road street signs as collectors' items. It's something that keeps the Johnson County highway department pretty busy.

"I guess since I've been in office, we've probably put, I'm guessing, eight signs up down there," said Sheriff Reece.

But the song isn't just about places, it also tells the story of an overall shift in society.

After the old days of moonshining faded away, law enforcement faced a new battle with the growth of a new illegal home-made product.

"Johnson County was known for quite a bit of moonshine back in the early '40s back in that era you know, then they kind of moved on from the moonshine to the marijuana."

And that kind of criminal activity has also taken place along Copperhead Road over the years.

These days though, the sheriff says the road and its residents are pretty calm. DEA helicopters no longer circle above, young families have moved in, and a new kind of business calls the area home.

At the end of Copperhead Road sits an old empty school. Current plans are for it to become a winery. It's part of a local vineyard and the man who owns it all has a history closely tied with the tale of Copperhead Road. He's a retire ATF agent.

Some say the lasting legacy of it all -- moonshine, marijuana, and now legal wine -- make the story behind Steve Earle's iconic song a Tennessee truth.

Steve Earle is still performing these days. His son Justin Towns Earle is also making a name for himself in the music world.

Coincidentally, the younger Earle is performing Thursday night here in Knoxville at the Square Room.

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