AN AUDIENCE WITH STEVE EARLE The Texan outlaw country songwriter on the genius of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, his upcoming memoir, and how Elvis Presley nearly made him a fortune…
An audience with the country outlaw: “Bob Dylan invented this job”
STEVE EARLE has a busy day ahead of him. “I went to SiriusXM to interview Chris Stapleton for my radio show, then I went to the gym. Later I pick up my kids from school, then I’ve got a play tonight, so I have to be at the theatre for 6.30.” Then, with a laugh, “It keeps me out of trouble.”
It seems as if Steve earle has crammed several lifetimes worth of experience into his 62 years – and not all of it positive. Although he makes light of the (seven) divorces and has a wry take on his period as an addict, you suspect it is music that played a huge role in getting earle through some very tough times. A troubadour in the mould of his hero, Townes Van Zandt, earle’s music has swerved from country to rock to bluegrass and folk. His latest album, So You Wannabe An Outlaw, is an old-fashioned country set, featuring guest slots from Willie Nelson and Miranda Lambert. It is one of many current creative endeavours – besides the off-Broadway play, Samara, he runs a songwriting camp, is writing a memoir and plotting his next novel. “I don’t have any choice when it comes to what I do,” he says, by way of explanation. “It’s like oxygen. I can’t live without it.”
It seems like you’ve been less vocal on politics in recent years. Any particular reason why, especially in the light of the current political climate? – Timothy Emmerick I don’t know if my records have become apolitical. This is maybe the least political record I’ve ever made, but I didn’t know this was going
to fucking happen. We made this record in December, I wrote all the songs before that, and I considered doing something else once the election happened. But I decided I’d go ahead with this record, which was conceived to be a certain thing. Hillary Clinton wasn’t my first choice: I was a Bernie guy. But I was going to vote for her, as at least we knew what she was. My guess is my next record will be just as country as this one, but way more political.
Did you have anything to contribute to the character of Walon in The Wire, in terms of experience? Robin Thatcher, Leeds I was playing a redneck recovering addict, so it didn’t require any acting! A lot of the people you see in those meetings are members of that group, who were in the building where we shot those scenes. They knew they were busting their anonymity to some extent, but it got them a day’s work as an extra. I didn’t know how to act, all I could do was bring my experience to it. That’s why I got the job.
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee-table in my cowboy boots and say that.” How germane were the cowboy boots? Would moccasins have been a decent substitute? Jennifer Rose, Blackheath I was asked for a quote for a sticker for a Townes Van Zandt record, I think it was
At My Window. Did I believe Townes was a better songwriter that Bob Dylan? No. Townes said to me, “That was really nice. But I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards and I don’t think it’s a really good idea.” A few years later, I toured with Bob and found out he only had one bodyguard and he wasn’t that scary. Bob invented this job. He’s never had any trouble making people understand how good he is. Townes, on the other hand, shot himself in the foot every chance he got, so he needed the help. Trust me, Bob knew who Townes was. I toured with Bob in ’88, he played “Pancho & Lefty” one night, just to let me know he’d heard what I said about his coffee-table.
What’s the best guitar you’ve played? Vintage or new? Do you still have it? Keith Allen, via email A 1935 Martin D-28. I got it pretty recently. It’s a Holy Grail. It’s the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a few. I had like 230, 240 instruments at one point, but I sold a bunch. I technically own 130 right now – but there’s still about 20 that are sitting for sale in a shop in Nashville. It means I can keep the nicer ones and survive my divorce!
Does coming from Texas give you a certain sound in your music? Peter Livesey, Manchester Yes. I think I’m reconnecting to it on this record more than I have for a long time.
But the blues record [2015’s Terraplane] connected to it, too. The blues record might have been one step towards that, because it’s all music I grew up on. Texas, there’s something in the water that grows singer songwriters. Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt. It’s mindblowing, but I think it’s logical. Narrative is important there, the whole oral tradition. I learned as much from the guys my dad and my uncle hunted deer with as I did from Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
What did you learn from your experiences as a staff writer at Sunbury Dunbar? Nicola Davidson, Edinburgh I had a publishing deal, I was being paid $75 a week to write songs. I learned about what to do and what not to do – and I learned about what I wasn’t interested in doing. I was there one time when a couple of songwriters came in and said, “We wrote 17 songs last night.” I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I bet those are great.’ The mass-produced, co-writing thing was just beginning to start by the time I got to town. We didn’t do that. Guy Clark got me that deal. That’s where he wrote. I did my first recordings in a studio, my demos, when I was at Sunbury Dunbar. I learned almost everything there is about the job I do from my three years at Sunbury Dunbar.
How do you think Nashville will receive So You Wannabe An Outlaw? James Logan, via email I don’t have an idea. I’m a little spooked about playing the Ryman because I haven’t sold tickets reliably in Nashville for a while. My album is an archaic country record. The most interesting music to me in country right now is by women, with the exception being Chris Stapleton. The guys are concerned with writing party songs. It’s more of a guy genre, so it’s harder for girls. Brandy Clark told me on my radio show she thought the women didn’t have that much of a chance so they thought, ‘What the fuck.’ Some of it does get on the radio, but the mainstream of country radio is largely hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.
When is your memoir coming out? – Marc Normandin I’m hoping I’ll finish it by the end of this year. It was supposed to be finished three years ago, but the divorce stopped me in my tracks. I’ve finally got going on it pretty well. It’s about recovery, but it’s not a self-help book. The first part is about my musical heroes, the middle part is about the street and that ordeal and the last part is about overcoming that. It’s called I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye. There’s already another novel. I’ll start work on it after I turn the memoir in. It’s about a journalist on the 50th anniversary of the Alamo who hears a rumour that there’s a slave who survived the battle that might be living in New Orleans and goes looking for him. It’s called Alamo Joe.
Can you tell us more about the time Bruce Springsteen joined you onstage at Tradewinds in New Jersey back in 1998? Patrick Clark It was the night Carl Perkins died, so we played a bunch of Carl’s songs. It was big deal. Bruce is one of the reasons I have a career. He was seen buying my first record and the first Willie DeVille solo record at Tower Records in LA. Somebody spotted him and it got into Billboard. The next week, I sold much more records. I’ve been a fan since record one.
Is it true Elvis Presley nearly recorded a song of yours? Nick Dickens, London It was 1975 or so. I heard Elvis was going to make a Nashville record for the first time in years. The last recordings he’d done were in the Jungle Room at Graceland, and he’d decided he was going to record in a studio again. They rented out the whole top floor of the Spence Manor – they still call that the Elvis Suite to this day. The session players were in the studio. Tony Brown, who later signed me to MCA Records, was in the band. He told me, years later, my song “Mustang Wine” was the first one up on the session. The band had learned it, they were just waiting for Elvis to get there. But he never left his suite. The musicians sat around until 2 or 3, then they got word that Elvis had gone back to Memphis. The session never happened. I was pissed at him, sure! Even an album cut on Elvis in those days was a lot of money, it would have been life-changing.
Would you ever consider doing a Camp Copperhead songwriting course in the UK? John Haddock, via email We’ve talked about it. I need help to set it up. We do Camp Copperhead here at a place called Full Moon Camp. It’s an old-fashioned Catskills family camp, like in Dirty Dancing. At my camp, you’ll find out about the process of writing songs as literature, like Bob Dylan. The purest form of literature is poetry, you can tell that ’cos that’s where you make the least money.
Do you have a favourite memory of Guy Clark? Neal Piper, Basingstoke When I got to town, I would go tag around with Guy and Susanna. I’d drink whatever they were drinking. If they were drinking Amandine red, I’d drink the red. If they switched to the white, I drank the white. People would come by, everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Neil Young, and he’d make them listen to my songs. He’d say to me, “Hey, play ‘The Mercenary Song’.” A lot of people know who I am because Guy Clark told them, “Listen to this song.”
“I learned as much from the guys my dad hunted deer with as I did from Townes” STEVE EARLE
Inspiration Townes Van Zandt, and top, Earle’s new album
Window shopping in Nashville, 1985
Guy and Susanna Clark in Nashville, June 1, 1998. Top: Elvis at the Nassau Coliseum, 1975