Steve Earle – Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
I can still hear them blaring in the back of my mind, those gleaming brass trumpets and trombones, thrusting right and left, toward one end zone and then the other, as the University of Texas marching band zipped through “The Wabash Cannonball”. Aside from “The Eyes of Texas” and the UT fight song, “The Wabash Cannonball” was the band’s most oft-played number during Longhorns games at Memorial Stadium in Austin, so much so that I grew up thinking it was one of the school’s official songs.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago, when Townes Van Zandt recorded it on his Roadsongs album, that I discovered “The Wabash Cannonball” was written by A.P. Carter, the same fellow who wrote the song for which this magazine is named. Heck, before that I never even knew “The Wabash Cannonball” had words.
Neither did Steve Earle — or if he did, he sure didn’t know what those words were when he was 17 years old and had his first encounter with Mr. Van Zandt. And that got him in a heap of trouble with his hero.
“I met Townes at The Old Quarter in Houston, Texas; I was playing there,” Earle says, remembering that fateful night in 1972. “There were about eight people there, they were all real drunk, and one of ’em was Townes. He was hecklin’ me. I’m tryin’ to play my set, and Townes keeps yellin’, ‘Play the Wabash Cannonball!’ He was sittin’ right in front of the stage. And I’d just ignore him.
“He wouldn’t yell while I was singin’ — he’d only yell between the songs, he was nice enough to do that. So I’d play another song, and he’d yell, ‘Play the Wabash Cannonball!’ And I’d play another song, and he’d go, ‘Play the Wabash Cannonball!’
“I finally had to admit that I didn’t know the fuckin’ Wabash Cannonball. And he goes, ‘You call yourself a folk singer and you don’t know the Wabash Cannonball?’ So I played this song of his called ‘Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold’ that has about 19 million words in it. And he shut up.”
Stories like that come a dime a dozen with Steve Earle. Saying that Earle’s life and career have been colorful is like saying Elvis had a bit of an appetite. If Earle were to die tomorrow, the film studios would probably be lining up to tell his tale in celluloid.
Thing is, a couple years ago it seemed quite possible that Earle might die tomorrow. The movie-script life he has led hasn’t altogether been a matter of being too good to be true; indeed, at times it’s been too bad to believe. From critically respected, chart-topping country star, to criminally incarcerated, drug-addled washout, Earle has seen both the highest highs and the lowest lows over the past couple decades.
That kind of emotional rollercoaster can be hell on the human condition, but it sure does have a way of unleashing the muse. Earle’s 1995 acoustic album Train A Comin’ was a refreshing return that, true to its title, got him back on track. Now comes the full-on locomotive: I Feel Alright, due in stores March 5 on Warner Bros., is a career effort, declaring the comeback of one of the most vital and vibrant artists in contemporary country music. Or is that in contemporary rock music?
That’s the age-old question about Earle’s music no one has ever quite figured out with any certainty, and that’s because it’s a non-issue at heart, as Earle well knows. “I think Hank Williams records have a lot more to do with the Sex Pistols than they have to do with Brooks & Dunn,” he suggests, using those artists as an example of why genre tags can sometimes have no meaning at all.
“It’s really just about any kind of music that’s real,” he continues. “That was what my argument with Nashville was all along. It’s not about country or rock. It’s about real…
“This record that I’ve got now is probably closer to a pop record than anything I’ll ever do, in a lot of ways. But it’s truer to what I think is the spirit of country music than most of the records that come out of Nashville. You know, ‘Long Black Veil’ wouldn’t get recorded nowadays. They want uptempo and positive, they want something a little zippy, And that’s something I’ve butted heads with people on these two streets right here all along.”
Earle is speaking by phone from Room & Board, a Nashville studio where he’s holed up in late January producing a record for The Viceroys, a young Knoxville band. The Viceroys are signed to E-Squared, a new label Earle has formed with his longtime friend Jack Emerson, a veteran of the Nashville music business and longtime champion of the blurring of boundaries between country and rock. The fact that Earle is also working as both a producer and a partner in a record label is evidence of how much ground he has regained in the past couple years.
But the most telling testament to that is the perfectly named Feel Alright. The title track, the first cut on the record, lays it all on the line straight and simple from the start, with telling lyrics such as, “Be careful what you wish for, friends/I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again.” It sears with a redemptive fire, a triumphant reclamation of what was once lost now regained. That spirit is reflected in the mostly upbeat nature of the music; there’s a hint of darkness in there somewhere, but mostly this is an album about breaking back out into the light, much as John Hiatt’s Bring The Family was nearly a decade ago.
“These songs, and the recordings, just sort of poured out of me in a six-month period,” Earle says. “I recorded most of them as I wrote them. I finally made a record the way I thought records were made when I was a kid listening to records; it finally felt like I’ve always thought it should.”
The opener sets the tone for the rest of the disc, which, true to Earle’s statement, is indeed as close to an outright pop record as he has ever made. About a half-dozen tracks on here that could be hits with the rock crowd, the country crowd, or both. “Hard-Core Troubadour” is a rambunctious, instantly catchy tune about living the legends you create for yourself in song. (Autobiographical? Perhaps, though he makes a nod to another great wild storytelling songwriter by sneaking in the line, “Hey Rosalita, won’t you come out tonight.”) “More Than I Can Do” is equally memorable, a declaration of love by a desperate man — or, as Earle puts it, “a happy little stalker love ballad.” “Now She’s Gone” is a slightly gentler pop ditty that probably will top the charts for some enterprising Nashville star before long, while the string-enhanced ballad “Valentine’s Day” could do the same for a mainstream pop performer. “The Unrepentant” is the kind of put-up-or-shut-up anthem that has earned Earle his vaunted reputation, for better and for worse, as one who does it his way or no way at all. And then there’s the closing track, “You’re Still Standin’ There,” a duet with Lucinda Williams that’s as perfect as a pop song as anyone could hope for, the kind that would make even Lennon and McCartney jealous (which puts Earle’s cover of the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” on Train A Comin’ in much clearer perspective).
All those songs aside, it’s the handful of tracks that supplement them which lift I Feel Alright to classic status. Anchoring the bursting-at-the-seams spirit of the pop tunes are a couple of darker numbers that reveal why Earle wasn’t feeling so alright a couple years ago. The clincher is listed on the jacket simply as “CCKMP”, which, as the listener discovers upon hearing it, stands for “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”. It’s a deathly song both in sound and subject, the summation of a drug addict at rock bottom realizing how low he’s fallen and how far he has to go to crawl out. And then there’s “South Nashville Blues”, which musically is deceptively happy, strolling along to a plucky banjo as Earle sings matter-of-factly about taking his pistol and $100 to a drug deal and having “everything I need to get me killed.”
That was Earle’s life for most of the early ’90s, a period he sardonically referred to in the liner notes of Train A Comin’ as “my vacation in the ghetto.” “I was sort of out of touch for a few years,” he readily admits. “The last few years that I was using, I didn’t even have a guitar. And I listened to a lot of hip-hop because I didn’t hang out with any white people; that’s just where the dope was in this town, so that’s where I was. And also, black people don’t listen to my music at all, so it was one place I could be pretty anonymous.”
Not anonymous enough, eventually. Arrested on drug charges in 1994, Earle did time both in jail and in a rehabilitation center, where he finally began to kick the habits that had been dogging him for most of his career. He has admitted to reporters that he was a heroin addict as far back as the release of his breakthrough solo album, Guitar Town, in 1986.
Guitar Town, which presented the most definitive synthesis of country and rock ‘n’ roll during the 1980s, is generally considered Earle’s debut, but in fact he had released a rockabilly EP titled Pink & Black in the early ’80s. Furthermore, he had been a fixture on the Nashville scene for more than a decade before Guitar Town came out, ever since he had moved there from his boyhood home of San Antonio to play bass for Guy Clark.
“I met Guy the first night I was in Nashville,” Earle recalls. “I came up here on sort of a reconnassaince mission before I actually moved up, and I was shootin’ pool in Bishop’s Pub, and he walked up to me. He liked my hat.
“Guy just sort of took me under his wing. There were a lot of pickin’ parties in those days. They went on at John Lomax’s house, and also at Jim McGuire’s photo studio. And people would just sit up all night and the guitar would go around the room. And there’d be everybody from me and David Olney, who were at absolutely street level, to Neil Young, when he was passing through town in those days. So it was like a university for songwriters. And Guy knew me from those things, and he helped me get my publishing deal. And when it came time for him to make a record and go out on the road, he said, ‘You used to play bass, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a little bit.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re the bass player.’ And that was it.”
Earle toured with Clark for a couple years before deciding to pursue his own career, but by then it was the late ’70s, and his timing couldn’t have been worse. “Nashville was slipping into the throes of the whole ‘Urban Cowboy’ thing,” Earle recalls. “And people here were trying real hard not to be hillbillies. That was their major concern. And I didn’t fit into that.”
Though he wasn’t being taken seriously as a performer, Earle was beginning to get recognized as a talented songwriter. “People [publishers] would keep signing me because they knew I could write, but nobody got a lot of cuts on me, so they’d usually drop me eventually, and then somebody else would sign me,” he remembers. “I had the odd cut here and there. …. The first record I ever had that made any money was a Johnny Lee single in about 1980 that I co-wrote.”
Actually, he came darn near to doing much better than that a few years earlier, when he was barely 20 years old. A song Earle wrote that eventually appeared on a Carl Perkins album was originally scheduled for an Elvis Presley recording session. “Tony Brown, who produced my first records, was Elvis’ piano player in those days, and he was on that session,” Earle explained. “They had my song up on the sessions, and it was gonna be the first one they were gonna record. But Elvis never left the hotel and came to the recording studio, and he never recorded again. So, when he died, I was pissed off at him for years.”
Nowadays, Earle doesn’t have to worry about such make-or-break opportunities as a songwriter. “I’ve had 17 or 18 cuts just in the last year,” he says, with a gratified tone that reveals equal amounts of bemused surprise and humble pride. His favorite versions of his songs, out of the 30 or 40 that have been recorded to date? “The two Emmylou cuts, without a doubt,” he responds without hesitation. (Harris recorded Earle’s “Goodbye” on last year’s stunning Wrecking Ball album, and did “Guitar Town” on her live At The Ryman disc in 1992.)
Financially speaking, Earle points out that “I had a Travis Tritt record that was a single last year and made a lot of money,” though he acknowledges that sometimes those benefits are more rewarding to the bank account than to the soul. For the record, he doesn’t seem to hold what he apparently considered a less-than-stellar version of his “Sometimes She Forgets” against Tritt. “I wasn’t crazy about that record, but I was disappointed because Travis is a really, really good country singer….But the producers went for this bullshit calypso feel, which is what Nashville producers do when they get scared.”
That’s the kind of no-holds-barred commentary that has often made Earle unwelcome company in the play-polite circles of the country music community, where the unwritten rule is that you don’t criticize your fellow musicians. This from a man who admits he has a picture of Reba McEntire taped to the toilet seat in the restroom of his office, and who once called current country-schlock sensation Shania Twain “the highest-paid lap dancer in Nashville.” “Uh, yeah, I did say that,” he admits, with a rather sheepish giggle. “I hadn’t realized that had gotten into print!”
It’s an entertaining sound bite, but Earle is more than happy to explain why he has a problem musically with records such as Twain’s recent blockbuster. At the root of it, he suggests, is the production — in this case, the work of Mutt Lange, who’s perhaps best-known for his work with Def Leppard.
“You listen to a Shania Twain track, one of the singles, and put it up against, like, a Leppard single off of Hysteria, and you’ll see a lot of the same elements there,” Earle says. “You may think I’m crazy saying that, but the same tricks are all there, the same kind of things with percussion and vocals. He [Lange] knows what he’s doing. And I admire what he does, from the part of me that makes records and tries to go in and get a performance on a record to push those buttons in people. But he does it real mechanically, and sometimes I think it’s cheatin’ a little bit.”
It’s an argument that makes perfect sense, in light of Earle’s statement a while back about the Sex Pistols and Hank Williams: The creations of Twain and Def Leppard, seemingly miles apart in terms of genre, are tied together by being equally fabricated — just as Hank and the Pistols are bonded by being equally real.
It’s a mid-January evening at The Backstage in Seattle, and Steve Earle is performing the finale of six West Coast shows that made up the last of three acoustic mini-tours with the accompaniment of Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and Roy Huskey Jr., the band with which he recorded Train A Comin’. The place is packed; word has obviously been passed from friends who have seen the tour make its way up the West Coast that Earle is not to be missed on this run.
A few minutes before the show starts, some dude comes up to me in my second-row spot near the stage and offers me a hundred bucks for the two seats I’ve claimed. It’s a tempting offer, but somehow it just doesn’t seem right; not because I really want to sit up close that badly, but because this evening seems like it should be about music, not money.
That wasn’t the only irony of the night. A handful of rowdy-to-the-point-of-obnoxious fans are hootin’ and hollerin’ at the drop of a hat throughout the show, obviously drunk beyond the point of reason — not exactly the kind of support a recovering drug addict deserves. For his part, Earle just plows right ahead with his songs and pretty well ignores the fuss. (When asked about it a couple weeks later, he says, simply, “I just don’t let it bother me that much. I mean, the point is, I don’t tell anybody else what to do. Nobody can tell me what to do.”)
As the show wears on, Earle mixes songs from Train A Comin’ with old classics such as “Someday” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”, previews a couple tunes from I Feel Alright, and eventually takes a break to allow Rowan and Blake their time in the spotlight. Rather than head backstage to grab a drink or a smoke, Earle stands just to the edge of the lights taking it all in, grinning as wide as Texas, glad still to be a part of it all. And still enjoying the pickin’ parties.
It’s been a long road back.