Steve Earle’s Labours of Love
First published at Unpaved
Earlier this year I had the great honour of speaking to Steve Earle as he prepared for his 2012 Australian tour. I asked to him about his music, his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt and his political courage.
Steve Earle: Unpaved interview (Part 1 of 2)
Hello, Steve Earle. Good to speak to you. My name’s Les and I run a website in Melbourne called Unpaved, which is dedicated to country folk music. Before getting right into the interview, I have to be honest and disclose that you’re the songwriter that has most inspired me and if it weren’t for you I doubt that I would be writing music and performing, and I doubt that the website itself would exist.
Oh, wow. That’s flattering. Thank you.
And it was your song in particular, John Walker Blues that brought you back to my attention. My own personal experience is that my brother was in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. He was one of the first Australians charged under anti-terrorism laws. Eventually he was acquitted, but it took about eight years for that to go through. But your song really gave me a great deal of strength. I guess it renewed my faith in the idea that music can have power in the world. So, I thank you.
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. That means a lot. I, at the time that I wrote it, my reasons for writing it were mainly two things: I had a twenty year old son, I had a son exactly the same age as John Lindh. And I saw a twenty-year-old kid duct taped to a board that didn’t look that much different than my kid. Big, tall, skinny kid. The first thing I thought was, “God, he’s got parents, and they’re seeing this too, and they’ve gotta be sick,”. And that was the deal. It was just simply, I knew that nobody else was gonna write that song. It’s not that big of a deal. But every once in a while something falls to you and you know that you’re supposed to do it because either nobody else will, or … I’m pretty good at writing stuff like that, at writing projects, you know . . . aimed to specific thing. I’ve been doing it long long enough. I can do it, and if you can do it and the opportunity presents itself then it’s irresponsible not to, is the way I look at it. So that’s really all there was to it.
It’s great that you have that outlook. Because, the way we see it from Australia, just looking at the political climate of the time, I’m really grateful that someone had the courage to look at things from that perspective.
(Noise in background)
Is that young John Henry [Steve’s two-year-old son] I can hear in the background?
Yeah, he’s running around loose. It’s about quarter to seven in the evening here. He just got out of the bathtub which means he runs up and down the hallway like a wild Indian for a while. I don’t know why, it’s just what he does. We’re home, we just did a residency at a nightclub here in New York City for a month, and I’ve been running up doing dates close to New York. And that’s about it, and not really going anywhere- I’m going to the Grammy’s this weekend, but John Henry and Alison are gonna stay here for that. The next big trip of any length is Australia at the end of March.
We’re certainly looking forward to that. I’ve been absolutely loving the sound and the songs of Never Get Out of This World Alive. You worked with T-Bone Burnett on that album. Can you talk about that experience and what you were looking for in getting your sounds and messages on that album together?
Well, I really left what it sounded like to T-Bone, which was sort of the point. I really wanted to concentrate on the songwriting. I wanted to push the poetics as hard as I could. So, I wanted to write and rewrite and rewrite right until I’d committed stuff to the actual recording. I think I accomplished what I wanted to artistically on the songs. I’m really, really proud of these songs. Even some of my best stuff has been underwritten to the extent that … I’m good at meeting deadlines and I like my job and I like to make records. Sometimes I’m writing for a specific thing. I’ve made a couple of very political records that were time-sensitive and I was trying to get them out. But I just didn’t want to feel rushed. I wanted to make sure I’d tuned every single line in this stuff. So to do that, I just wanted, for a change, not to have to worry about the logistics of it, or what microphone was going to be used.
We recorded it very quickly. This City was recorded on a separate session before the other sessions because it had to be ready for the last episode of the first season of Treme. But T-Bone came into New Orleans and met me there. We hired Allen Toussaint to do the horn chart. We used New Orleans players. That was in May, and then the following November we convened in LA and we made the record. But it was four days we were recording.
I guess it would have been a great feeling to be able to put your faith in somebody like T Bone Burnett.
Oh, absolutely! I hadn’t made a record this way with a live band in a couple of outings. Townes was pretty much me on guitar and vocals, you know, stuff that I added instruments to myself. And Washington Square was me and John King, who was half of The Dust Brothers. It was arrived at by very much folky kind of instruments. I touched one electric guitar in the whole process, and there’s a lot of me on that record. I played almost everything on that record. But it was just arrived at over a beat. So it was more of a solitary process both of those records. And it was fun to just go in with a bunch of players that could really play. It was T-Bone’s band, you know. The guys he’s been using in the last few records.
It was really inspired by watching Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at this festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass that I do every year. And I was watching T-Bone play guitar with that band, and I knew most of the people in the band. Buddy Miller was in the touring version of that band. Jay Bellerose played drums, obviously. And Dennis Crouch the bass player, and they’re both the rhythm section in I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Actually, T Bone found Dennis playing for the first time in my Bluegrass band at Hardly Strictly one year. And he’s been T-Bone’s bass player of choice ever since. Great great great bass player.
Steve Earle: Unpaved interview (Part 2 of 2)
Talking about Townes and the Townes album, you’ve really brought Townes to hundreds of thousands of people, including myself. Townes is much loved in Melbourne, where I live. We even had a tribute night to Townes as Unpaved’s first live event just last year. I remember seeing you playing at the Forum. You did a great version of Pancho and Lefty which you described is like your first day in prison. You have to knock out the big guy in order to get the radio.
Absolutely, no doubt about it. I did to record it first. It was the very first thing I did, and I kinda had to do it. There were some songs I was OK with leaving off. I didn’t record If I Needed You simply because Guy Clark had just recorded it. And I’ve been deferring to Guy Clark since I was eighteen or nineteen-years-old. So that also freed me up to record No Place to Fall because they’re sort of the same song. As writers we repeat ourselves sometimes just to say something better than we said it before, and I think that was the case with If I Needed You and No Place to Fall. They’re basically songs that were designed to pick up girls, more than they were anything else. And they were really, really good songs.
It was a labour of love. I mean, every minute of that record, and I’m really proud of it. The guy that recorded it, Steve Christenson, well a lot of that record was me and Christenson alone in my apartment on Jones Street. You know we lived in a small apartment. We moved here after John Henry was born to a two bedroom a couple of blocks away over closer to Washington Square Park. But we were living in Jones Street on the ground floor in this teeny tiny apartment. It had one bedroom, which was really a closet at the back with a bed in it. It did have a little garden that was nice, which you don’t have very much in New York. Sometimes, Steve after the first couple of nights, we were taking a break and having dinner, and he said that sometimes he felt uncomfortable because he felt like he was in the room when something too intimate to be eavesdropping on was going on. And I said “in that case, we’re probably doing this exactly right, because that’s what it’s supposed to be”.
He [Townes] had a way of putting a mystical angle into things that is present in the song when it’s performed by others as well as him. Would you say that Townes really worked to build a little mystique. Stories about waking up and having If I Needed You already in his mind, or a song like Mr Mudd and Mr Gold, which I’ve been obsessed with, and I understand you burnt out a couple of records mastering that tune.
I ruined my vinyl copy of it trying to learn it just picking up the needle and putting it back down, picking up the needle, putting it back down. I think some of it with Townes was better at making sure nowhere near enough people knew who he was than he was stuff that was self aggrandising. He knew how good he was, but he also had a real fear. There was something about him that didn’t feel . . . he couldn’t get himself completely comfortable with the idea of succeeding. He constantly did stuff that sort of guaranteed that he never did. It’s Townes’s fault. Townes is not a misunderstood genius. He had every opportunity to be a lot more well-known than he was, and he fucked it up himself. I watched it, I was a witness. I saw it. And he did it all the time. I don’t know why. I’ve known other people like him. In his case it’s more of a tragedy than most because he was so good.
Steve, there are things that seem to be relatable about Townes. He had his own addiction, that particular disease that you say you shared. Do you feel there’s a part of Townes that you can never really get? There are parts that you can and parts that you can’t?
I can’t spend too much time wondering why somebody gets sober and somebody else doesn’t. I know that Townes never tried. He never seriously tried to get sober. He only tried to dry out when he got so ill that he just couldn’t consume any more alcohol, and then as soon as he was back on his feet he’d start drinking again. He never had any intention of staying sober. I got to a point where I just had to. I just didn’t want to die, fast or slow.
Thank goodness you didn’t, Steve. Thank goodness for that fact. You’re coming to Australia and there will also be people like the Pogues and Lucinda Williams, your son Justin. I’m wondering if you might be sharing the stage with them at any point?
Well, that’s always a possibility. Justin and I will only be in the same place once where our trips overlap, which will be Byron. He’s getting over a little after I am. We’ll see each other in Byron and then I’ll play a few more gigs in Australia and then go on to New Zealand as he’s heading west. The Pogues are old, old friends and if we end up in the same place at the same time then stuff has been known to happen.
Jesse James, maybe?
Or even Johnny Come Lately. It’s one of those things. I saw Spider quite a bit because he’s in the second season of Treme. He was in a couple of episodes with me. He’s got a place in New Orleans, so I’ve seen him recently. I haven’t seen all those guys together in three or four years, so that’ll be fun.
I describe myself as a socialist, and I really admire your outspokenness and being an out and proud socialist from Texas. Where do your politics come from?
I think just growing up during the Vietnam War basically playing coffee houses because I was too young to get into places that served drink when I started playing. And coffee houses in the late ’60s and early ’70s were a pretty political atmosphere. I think it was just the kind of musicians that were around the kind of places I was playing were pretty political. It never occurred to me to separate the two.
And powerful ideas don’t leave in a hurry, I guess?
No, they don’t.
I really appreciate the time today, Steve. It’s been wonderful and I’d love to speak more.
A pleasure. Thank you very much.