Music

'Copperhead Road': The Story Behind Steve Earle's Family Lineage Tune

Steve Earle backstage at Farm Aid in Austin, Texas on July 4, 1986 (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" can be heard on any dance floor where line dancing is the staple. The song is told from the perspective of John Lee Pettimore III; the story takes the listener to the backwoods of East Tennessee when moonshiners ruled the counties.

The song tells the story of a young man observing the troubles his grandaddy goes through in the bootlegging business. Eventually, his father loses his life in the business, and Pettimore gets drafted into the U.S. Army to serve two tours in Vietnam. When he gets back to the states, he enters the marijuana business and faces the same fate as those before him, screaming the warning, "You better stay away from Copperhead Road."

"Copperhead Road" was released in 1988 as the title track on Steve Earle's third studio record. The song reached No. 10 on the Billboard Rock Tracks chart and has sold over one million digital copies.

Apparently, the song was started while Steve Earle was in a Dallas jail. Copperhead Road was the name of a road near Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee. The road's official name has been changed to Copperhead Hollow Road because the road signs kept getting stolen.

As a songwriter, Steve Earle has the influence of many genres: Americana, Bluegrass, classic rock and country. His best songs include "Guitar Town," "The Devil's Right Hand," "Back to The Wall," "Snake Oil," "You Belong To Me," "Nothing but a Child," "Johnny Come Lately" and "Once You Love."

'Copperhead Road' Lyrics:

Well, my name's John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before
You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here
He only came to town about twice a year
He'd buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
Everybody knew that he made moonshine

Now the revenue man wanted Grandaddy bad
He headed up the holler with everything he had
It's before my time, but I've been told
He never came back from Copperhead Road

Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge
Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
Just shot a coat of primer, then he looked inside
Well, him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin' sound

Then the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin', knew something wasn't right
He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road

I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first, 'round here anyway
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I just plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road

And now the D.E.A.'s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I'm back over there
I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie, don't you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road

Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road

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'Copperhead Road': The Story Behind Steve Earle's Family Lineage Tune