In 1975, Steve Earle moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he met Guy Clark and his wife Susanna. He appears in the 1975 film Heartworn Highways, which documents the songwriting scene in Nashville around Clark, including fellow Texas musicians Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell. Earle had already met Van Zandt in Texas, and refers to Clark and Van Zandt as his mentors and teachers. Clark was instrumental in Earle being hired as a songwriter by the Sunbury Dunbar publishing division of RCA. There he wrote songs for the likes of Carl Perkins, Johnny Lee, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner. His song "Mustang Wine" was due to be recorded by Elvis Presley in 1975, but Presley did not turn up for the recording session. The song was released as a single by Carl Perkins. He also wrote the Patty Loveless hit "A Little Bit in Love." Earle did backing vocals on "Desperados Waiting for a Train" (together with Emmylou Harris) on Clark's first album Old No. 1 and toured in Clark's band. In 1981 Earle achieved a top-ten cut with "When You Fall in Love," which was recorded by Johnny Lee. In 1985 one of his compositions "A Far Cry from You" was recorded by Connie Smith, who made the song a minor hit that year.
Earle's early work as a recorded performer was in the rockabilly style, and can be heard on his compilation album: Early Tracks. The album was recorded for Epic Records, but the company dropped Earle, only releasing the album in 1987 after he found success with MCA Nashville. Earle had to wait until 1986 before his first album, Guitar Town, was released by MCA. It was a critical success and was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. The follow-up albums Exit 0 in 1987 and the certified-gold Copperhead Road, 1988, built on this success. With Copperhead Road, Earle moved to MCA Los Angeles and drew increasingly on Rock and roll influences.
Earle is the subject of the documentary film Just an American Boy, directed by Amos Poe, which explores his political views as well as his music. The film was shot while Earle was touring in support of his 2002 release Jerusalem. In 2005, he caused consternation among his fans by allowing the song The Revolution Starts Now to be used by General Motors in a TV advertisement for pick-up trucks.In 2006, Earle contributed a cover of Randy Newman's song "Rednecks" to the tribute album Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman. Earle is also the subject of two biographies, Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, by the noted New York-based music writer David McGee and Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle by Lauren St. John.
In September 2007, Earle released his twelfth studio album, Washington Square Serenade,on New West Records. Earle recorded the album after relocating to New York City, and it was his first attempt at using digital audio workstation ProTools, as opposed to traditional analog recording techniques. The disc features wife Allison Moorer on "Days Aren't Long Enough" and "Down Here Below." The album includes Earle's version of Tom Waits' song "Way Down in the Hole" which is featured as the theme song for the fifth season of The Wire in which Earle himself appears as Walon. In 2008, Earle produced Joan Baez's album Day After Tomorrow. (Prior to their collaboration on Day After Tomorrow, Baez had covered two Earle songs, "Christmas in Washington" and "Jerusalem," on previous albums.) In the winter, he toured Europe and North America in support of Washington Square Serenade, performing half the set solo and the other half with a DJ. On May 12, 2009, Earle released a tribute album, Townes, on New West Records. The album contains 15 songs written by his late friend and musical mentor Townes Van Zandt. Guest artists appearing on the album include Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Earle's wife Allison Moorer, and his son Justin Townes Earle. Both Washington Square Serenade and Townes also earned Grammy awards in the contemporary folk category.
Earle released his first novel and fourteenth studio album, both entitled I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive after a Hank Williams song, in the spring of 2011. The album was released on April 26, 2011 and was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Earle describes it as dealing with questions of mortality and having a "more country" sound than his earlier work. He plans a full band tour in support of the album in the summer of 2011.
Since his emergence as a performer, his songs have been covered by various well-known artists, including Joan Baez, The Pretenders, The Proclaimers, Eddi Reader, The Highwaymen, Waylon Jennings, Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Percy Sledge and Johnny Cash.Travis Tritt had a #7 country hit in 1995 with Earle's "Sometimes She Forgets."