Steve Earle – Love and death
More than a decade on, most features about Steve Earle still recall his darkest days, when drink and drugs ruined multiple marriages and nearly killed him, finally landing him in jail. Earle says he understands how that sort of knee-jerk sensationalism comes with “the job” of being a well-known musician, actor and activist. But he’d really like people to “evolve and be interested in something else” — namely, how “really incredibly happy” he is these days.
“I haven’t been to jail in thirteen years,” Earle declares. “I haven’t been divorced in ten years. This is the first time I’ve ever been married sober. And I’ve been making records sober longer than I made records on drugs.”
In 2005, Earle married singer-songwriter Allison Moorer and the couple moved from Nashville into a garden apartment in New York City’s West Village. His relationship with Moorer and New York is at the heart of his new recording, Washington Square Serenade — a solo-style song set, mostly written and recorded there, and performed as a passionate tribute to the woman and the city that inspired him.
“Yeah, I’m in love,” Earle says, near gushing. “And I moved to New York City. I’m in love with Allison and New York City, and both of those things are fairly obvious on this record.”
Earle made a long string of successful recordings in Nashville — in tandem with producer-engineer Ray Kennedy, as the “Twangtrust” — beginning in 1996 with his hard-rocking comeback I Feel Alright and continuing to 2004’s Grammy-winning The Revolution Starts…Now.
But during a three-year hiatus — for him, a very long time between records, he admits — Earle decided he wanted to do something smaller and more personal. That’s when he “tested positive for Pro Tools,” he likes to say.
The digital audio workstation allowed him to work out most of the basic tracks for Washington Square Serenade, while sitting in his apartment at his Apple computer. Later, Earle brought in pioneering digital producer John King (of the Dust Brothers), best-known for his layered, sample-happy work with the Beastie Boys and Beck. Then, Earle and King took things to the legendary Electric Lady Studios (built by Jimi Hendrix), just a few blocks away in the Village.
“It was just a different way of arriving at something,” Earle explains. “It was a way to keep anybody else out of the process until I was ready for them to be involved. I just didn’t want anybody else’s fingerprints on it. And I wanted to take my time.”
Earle played most of the instruments on Washington Square Serenade. When it came time to finish things up and smooth out a few of the rough edges, he relied on a small cadre of New York musicians, including Jeremy Chatzky (of Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions band) on acoustic bass, John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) on harmonium, and Marty Beller (of They Might Be Giants) on drums.
While Earle resists the notion that Washington Square Serenade is a laptop record, savvy listeners accustomed to the warm, vintage analog sound that was the trademark of the Twangtrust may be a bit surprised by its modern gizmo mix of stripped-down folk conjured in a crisp, DIY hip-hop style.
“It started as a laptop record,” Earle allows. “It’s that kind of thing. But it’s a pretty hi-fi one, with really good microphones, and guys who can really play. John was the first guy who started making those kinds of records. He’s a computer guy. He goes back before there was Pro Tools. He made that first Tone-Loc record with ‘Wild Thing’ on it. That was a Dust Brothers production. And what I liked was that those guys always used really organic elements.”
Beyond love and New York and loving New York, Washington Square Serenade is informed by the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the late ’50s and early ’60s — a period sometimes referred to as the “Great Folk Scare.” Earle, an avid student of Village history, is proud to point out that he and Moorer live on the street Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo were walking down on the cover photo of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
“The reason I think that period of the Great Folk Scare was so important,” Earle says, “was that it and only it made rock ‘n’ roll art, rather than just loud pop music. The singer-songwriter thing came out of the folk movement. The first guys that wrote their own songs were Dylan and Tom Paxton. They were both really good. Dylan was better.”
Earle has always been significantly eclectic as to his musical tastes, and provocative in his pronouncements, so it’s not exactly shocking to hear him flatly state, “At its best, hip-hop has always been folk music.”
That hybrid hits from the opening track on Washington Square Serenade, “Tennessee Blues”. It’s a folkie tune all right. But the acoustic guitar and string bass resonate over looping digital beats. It not only works musically, it manages to distill the raison d’etre of the record and Earle’s current life in the space of 2 minutes and 39 seconds.
Lyrically, the song evokes Nashville as a vexing nemesis and New York as a bohemian promised land. It also references Guitar Town, the 1986 album that launched Earle’s career. Ironically, he uses the title as a kiss-off — singing about driving away from Nashville in a kind of bittersweet reverie, with his dog on the floor and his wife by his side: “Bound for New York City/And I won’t be back no more/Won’t be back no more boys/You won’t see me around/Goodbye Guitar Town.”
Truth be told, there’s more than a little poetic license in those words. Earle still has a home outside of Nashville, where he’s recently been spending more time while rehearsing for tour dates around the release of Washington Square Serenade and producing a new Joan Baez record (with Ray Kennedy engineering).