His first album, Guitar Town, was released over 30 years ago. He followed it with 15 more studio albums as well as numerous live albums and collaborations. He moved to Nashville when he was 19, hung out with Townes Van Zandt and says that Guy and Susanna Clarke finished raising him.
Steve Earle, songwriter, singer, musician, activist, author, has worked with a range of musicians, from bluegrass lord Del McCoury to tongue-in-cheek punkers The Supersuckers and everyone — like Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, Patti Smith and Son Volt — in between. In short, Earle’s got pedigree and track record. There is even The Best of Steve Earle out in the 20th Century Masters Collection, a collection which has shone the spotlight on Kiss, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. Earle rubs hallowed shoulders.
While the musician started in the songwriter tradition of his Nashville mentors, his early albums and shows gained a hardcore rock following for tunes like Copperhead Road. Over the years, he switched it up a lot, moving mercilessly between country, bluegrass, roots and blues. And it’s not just that Earle has recorded a lot of albums and nailed down many musical styles — it’s that he takes a spike and a jackhammer and drives those styles into bedrock.
But it’s never been just about tunes — Earle’s lyrics boldly go where few mainstream American rockers dare, writing songs, like John Walker’s Blues, based on the alienated American youth who ended up fighting in a Taliban uprising, or Mississippi, It’s Time, about the removal of the Confederate flag, from the perspective of the vulnerable, the vilified, and the morally victorious.
Speaking from Detroit, where he has been on a tour that’s hopscotched between the U.S. and Canada, Earle explains why he is able to flow with such mastery between styles.
“When I decided to make a bluegrass record, I’d just became really interested in bluegrass — well, I had been for a long time — and I thought, ‘Well, here’s a way to write some songs I wouldn’t otherwise write (which) is to challenge myself to write a whole album of bluegrass songs, because there isn’t a lot of fresh material that comes to the bluegrass. There aren’t a lot of writers in the genre.
“I had a friend that was a pretty well-known songwriter in Nashville — that was Paul Craft, he passed away now. He’s written a lot of great songs, but he got really interested in bluegrass and he wrote a lot that weren’t really in bluegrass songs. The Seldom Scene recorded some of his stuff and that kind of inspired me to some degree. It’s the same way with making a blues record, it was part of who I am, and part of what I’ve done all along, and I wanted to concentrate on it, and I wrote some songs I wouldn’t have written otherwise.”
His latest release, this year’s So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, is classic Earle: some chukka-chukka rockin’ sing-alongs; more stories of lives lived with liquid lucidity, like the sweetly simple News from Colorado; songs mixed up with spit and fiddle that could break out at a backroads barndance; and thoughts laid blessed and bare, including the touching Goodbye Michelangelo, written to honour Clark after his passing last year.
It’s obvious that over 30 years has not made one dint in the well — there is no chance of it running dry.
“I’m just trying to come up with a reason to write songs,” he says. “The way that the record business is now, you have to make a lot of records so you can go out and do another tour, ’cause touring is really how you make your money. So I have to try to challenge myself.
“You know, I’ve got an audience, but they expect new songs and interesting songs. I’m pretty proud of my audience; they’re pretty smart and they’ve stuck with me through all these twists and turns all these years. I try not to disappoint them. Every once in a while I piss somebody off. But I’d rather piss them off than disappoint ’em. They’re not exactly the same thing.”
We speak of him crossing the border several times on his tour while the United States threatens to annihilate an entire nation — I suggest maybe this side of the border is a bit more comfortable.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, no doubt about it. I was in Canada the night he (Trump) was elected. I was in Ottawa that night and we were playing (the) Guitar Town 30th Anniversary Tour. It’s like some Idi Amin (the dictator of Uganda who took part in ethnic cleansing and boasted about eating human flesh) shit. It’s the way the insane ruler of some Third World country talks, not the president of the United States.”
So how disheartening must it be to spend 30 years writing songs against injustices and have the leader of the free world spouting off?
“There are changes; the world’s more civilized than it was 1000 years ago, and there’s stuff (that’s) backwards, too. My country suffers from acute birth defects, and so does Canada, too. The whole idea of colonies in North America had a lot to do with the continuation of slavery — after all it was outlawed in Europe, and that’s the truth. The United States embraced it and stuck with it longer than anyone else did, and we’re still struggling with race because of it. And that’s why everybody asks, ‘Why is racism still an issue?’ Slavery, stupid. That’s why.
“The difference between Americans in the US and Canadians is the idea that we disconnected ourselves from Britain for a reason, and that was basically, this was not a revolution of the people. It was a revolution of rich farmers who didn’t want to pay their taxes. And we’re still kind of rich farmers that don’t want to pay our taxes.
“So Canada stayed connected, culturally and politically to Britain, and in some ways, devolved at a different rate, quicker rate in my view, than the United States did as far as what a government’s supposed to do.
He continues. “Yeah, bureaucracy drives me crazy, especially when I’m trying to get across the border, but it’s also the way, way, way lesser of a couple of evils. Government’s supposed to do something. I’m fine with paying taxes as long as, you know, you get stuff done.”
Which explains his penchant for writing songs for the underclass.
“We started out on a different path than other places in the world, as far as our constitution is more about protecting property than it is people. It ended up being amended and ended up kind of a masterpiece because immigration became such an important part of our story. That’s why that issue’s always kind of important to me. The only thing that make the United States good is all of the new blood coming in all along as long as it’s existed.”
Getting off of heavy topics, Earle just became a grandfather again when his talented son, Justin Townes Earle, also a songwriter of note, and his wife, had their first baby a few months ago. Earle flew out of Los Angeles a day earlier than his tour bus to get more baby time in Portland.
“Her name’s Etta St. James Earle. It’s my third grandchild, because my middle son Ian has a girl and a boy, and they’re like eight and two. But she’s the teeniest girl baby ever; she weighed five pounds and 15 ounces, the smallest grandbaby I’ve had, smallest baby I’ve ever held.”
In mentioning that Justin is quite the songwriter in his own right, Earle agrees, then says, “We have some audience in common, probably more than he would like to admit. “
The two families live some ways apart. Back in 1997, Earle recorded a song called New York City, about moving there when he never thought he would have time in life to do so. I ask him if, after over a decade of living there, the city lived up to his expectations.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else now,” he says. “I used to go to New York to relax. I’d go and see shows, go to museums. I’ve always loved it. At this point in my life I need live theatre and I need major league baseball. (Note: Earle is watching a baseball game on TV throughout our interview.) I’m not home very much, but when I am home, I see as many shows as I can and I go see the Yankees play.”
He adds he loves the time he spends walking around in Greenwich Village with his and his former wife Allison Moorer’s seven-year old son, John Henry, who is living with autism.
“When I’m home, John Henry and I hang out, and we’re kind of the Kings of Greenwich Village. We walk around, (and) everyone in the neighbourhood knows him. I have to watch him — they give him candy and ice cream. He probably gets a little bit too much of as we make our rounds around the Village.”
Life sounds busy, between raising John Henry, touring, writing songs, protesting the world’s wrongs, and visiting family and grandchildren. However, there is one more corner of the world upon which Earle might soon make an impact. He is already a television star, having played Waylon in David Simon’s brilliant series, The Wire, and a musician during the New Orleans floods in another Simon series, Treme.
“It was the first acting I’ve ever done, and it kind of led to a little mini career that I enjoyed. I really didn’t have to act (because) I played a redneck recovering addict, so I didn’t really have to act, and I wasn’t intimidated by it because I knew what to do.
“David and I are friends. I saw him the other night when he came out to the show, and he and I are in the talking stages of working on a Broadway musical together.”
(Photo credit: Chad Batka.)
Steve Earle and The Dukes play at the Grey Eagle Event Centre on Thursday, Sept. 28. For ticket information, please click here.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who covers her two passions, music and horses. She has written in the Calgary Herald, Fast Forward Weekly, Swerve, Western Horsemen, Western Horse Review and other publications for over 25 years.