Steve Earle

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…

UNCUT - - Contents - In­ter­view by Michael Bon­ner

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

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