"George Jones said around that time, "We worked our butts off to keep from being called hillbillies and Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle fucked that up in six months!" We wore it as a badge of honor."
Steve Earle has a thousand stories, six ex-wives, and 16 studio album recorded over a nearly 30-year career. His latest album, Terraplane, is a collection of blues-based songs written while dealing with a difficult separation from his wife, songwriter Allison Moorer, with whom he has a 5 year-old son. Earle's other son from a previous marriage is songwriter Justin Townes Earle.
He is one of our great songwriters, using deft formal skill with song structure to juggle incisive character studies, personal confession, and passionate politics. He comes out of late 70's Nashville, a time and place where artists like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, both close mentors, along with Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, were pushing the creative, personal edge of songwriting while the Nashville music establishment moved towards pop-country.
After several years as a songwriter-for-hire, Earle had commercial success with his 1986 debut album, Guitar Town, which went to #1 on the Billboard Country charts. Successive albums Exit Zero and Copperhead Road also did well commercially. By the mid-90s, a turbulent life fueled by addiction led to arrests for drug possession, jail time and treatment. Since getting sober, Earle has maintained a steady output of albums nurtured a passionate fan base. With the next album already in mind, he's as restless as ever. He just kicked of a 32-city US tour. Catch him if you can.
I photographed and spoke with Earle at his home in Greenwich Village.
Jacob Blickenstaff: When I hear you speak about music, history or just about anything, I'm amazed at what an encyclopedic recall you have.
Steve Earle: It's just my job. I'm basically a folk singer, and that job is musicology to a certain extent as long as it's existed. There is an academic quality to it, which is one of the things that people criticize about it.
JB: At a recent performance, I heard you talk about some of the historical influences of the new record. Is this specifically a Texas blues based album?
SE: No, it's a blues record, but I’m from Texas — there's not a Los Angeles shuffle, there's not a New York shuffle there's only a Chicago shuffle and a Texas shuffle. And my guitarist Chris Masterson is from Houston; he was born in Louisiana but he grew up in Houston, and his dad fixed everybody's amps. He was out playing in pretty serious blues bands sitting in with him and sitting in at Antone's in Austin when he was 14, 15 years old. He was one of those guys.
JB: Although this isn't strictly a Texas blues-based record, in terms of your memories growing up and playing in Texas, was there any element that you were trying to bring to the songs in Terraplane?
SE: Sure, I mean, I'm not saying it's not a Texas blues record, it kind of is because I'm from Texas, I'm just saying that I didn't set out to make a Texas record. I set out to make a blues record. I was in a blues band when I was 13 years old, and it was just because we moved to the South Side of San Antonio from the North Side, and everybody was a cowboy and greased their hair back, and I couldn't find anybody like me, except for these three or four kids who were listening to Canned Heat and the Butterfield Blues Band. We started a band, and that's one of the only bands I was in growing up. I was just a singer. I got kicked out for wanting to do a Donovan song, plus a guy that had a PA system came along and I didn't have one. As for influences, really the most important thing was Canned Heat. Canned Heat had a lot to do with this record. And then ZZ Top comes along the next year and that was happening locally, we could touch it. ZZ Top played proms and shit where I grew up. So did the Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbon's band before ZZ Top, and so did the 13th Floor Elevators.
JB: One thing that struck me upon listening to Terraplane are the two songs right next to each other, "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now" then "Better Off Alone." Those are such different ends of the emotional spectrum of a break up song, one rambling and giddy, the other wrenching, angry and sad.
SE: They're the same experience; they're just, you know, different voices. I mean, they're all me. But, they're the same.
I'm going through it right now with Allison. She's heard some of the record and gotten pissed off about it. But I'm not gonna listen to her record, I'm not gonna listen to Justin's record. It is a very weird experience for me not to listen to their work because I've been listening to it for a long time. But I'm not a masochist. And I'm also not sadistic. I don't have any other experience to write about this year except this. I wish I did, but I don't. But still, it makes me feel better. I don't think there's a mean moment on the record. I think, some stuff is just me basically puffing out my chest and trying to make myself feel better, a little less fucked over. The experience is different when you leave than when you get left. I've done both, and it's different.
I didn't plan it, I didn't want it to happen, there's no way it's anything but a tragedy. My therapist thinks that I really want to be alone so I choose relationships that are bound to fail. I'm not sure I buy that. I think I don't want to be alone just like anybody else doesn't. But I'm OK alone. More and more as I get older I'm OK. Although I'm not really alone; when I'm home, the little boy's here often. If she takes him someplace else I don't know what I'll do. Odds are that won't happen. We'll see.
JB: Many of your recent albums have an organizing theme, is that something that is part of your way of working?
SE: Sure, I think they always have had. Starting with Guitar Town, I really was trying to—and I convinced myself that I could—make country records that were art, and get on the charts. Dwight Yoakam and a few other people were doing that. George Jones said around that time, "We worked our butts off to keep from being called hillbillies and Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle fucked that up in six months!" We wore it as a badge of honor.
I think I pissed Robert Christgau off. He was one of the first people to call us "New Traditionalists" and I never claimed to be that. I claimed to be a hillbilly singer at that moment. But I never hid where I came from. I was very adamant that my teachers were Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, who was actually a folk singer.
My whole group of people are post-Dylan, but, more importantly in our immediate environment of Nashville, post-Kris Kristofferson songwriters. We were one foot in the country mainstream and one foot not. And I thought, "I did do it!" I had a number-one country album. I pulled it off from ground zero.
Some other people like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings did it with the Outlaw thing, but they had already had some success in the country charts. And those guys are the generation just before Kris got there. They understood what Kris was, and they were the hippest guys of that generation, but my generation is the guys that came after Kris.
Mickey Newbury is at the heart of it all. Even Kris was there partially because of him. Newbury was trying really hard to be taken seriously as an artist, and it was hard to do. He had a couple of hits, and one really big one with the First Edition. They were both from Houston and had come to Nashville, bouncing back and forth together. Newbury was Townes' first publisher and that's how he got his publishing deal. It's like how Paul Simon is the last Tin Pan Alley songwriter, but he had one foot in the Greenwich Village thing because when he came along. But he definitely came up in the Brill Building, so he's really important because of that. And no matter what you think about him—I teach him in my songwriting course because he can rhyme consonants—he's one of the baddest motherfuckers I've ever seen. He's also really interesting and important, just by virtue of when he came along.
JB: You've had a consistent output, almost and album a year for the last dozen years, is that part of your cycle of work, of staying busy?
SE: What else would I do? I don't take drugs anymore. I don't drink. I'd fish more if I lived someplace else, but I don't. I love to fish with a fly rod, but it's not worth living in Montana or Idaho or New Zealand for that matter, cause I'd go kinda nuts. I need to live here in New York. It's the cave of the sleeping sharks: they used to think that sharks didn't sleep, but it turns out they found a cave off the coast of Mexico where the sharks found a current, and they just turn their heads toward the current and the oxygen comes to them. That's what New York's like: the oxygen comes to you. If I get my wings clipped and I can't travel anymore, do I want it to be in Texas, or Tennessee, or even LA? No. This is where I want to be.
JB: Lot's of creative people seem to be struggling with living in New York.
SE: Because of the money?
JB: Yeah, the money and the drainage of culture from that.
SE: I don't think there's drainage of the culture, I think it's just hard. The culture isn't just the artist sitting around bitching about how great the old era was. The Nation magazine does a cruise to raise money, I've done it two or three times as a musical guest. They're big fundraisers, so you host a table every night and usually people are disappointed to be with me, rather than you know, like, Rachel Maddow. But there was a guy at our table one night and his name was Erving Wolf, and he was 94 years old at the time. Every time a microphone got within ten feet of him at any gathering of more than ten people it was like, "My name is Erving Wolf, and I'd like to remind everybody that this is the 48th anniversary of the glorious revolution in Cuba!" I don't know what his connection to Cuba was, 'cause he's Jewish and he grew up in New York, but Allison was being a good hostess, and he asked where we lived, and we said the Village. He said, "Oh, the Village, I lived there in 1922." Allison said, "Wow, it must have been really cool then!" He goes, "Ah, we lived there in '22, and everybody said, you shoulda lived here 10 years ago when it was really the Village!"
Still, I live in the middle of a college campus. Everybody cusses NYU, but they are still a major university, there are still college kids and graduate students around here. You can overhear idiots from New Jersey coming in on the weekend thinking NYU girls are gonna talk to them, which is most of the business in these bars, but you can still overhear intelligent conversations in this neighborhood. And there are older folks here, a few people left that know a lot, and I try to find them. The world still comes here. People ask me why I don't live in Brooklyn and I said, "I didn't wait until I was 50 years-old to move to New York to live in Brooklyn." It's one of those things. I'm a New Yorker, I think I've earned that now. Patti Smith says I'm a New Yorker, so you know, that counts.
JB: I was pulling out some of your early records and I think it was on the back of Exit 0, it said, "recorded digitally on a Mitsubishi…". I read in an article published right after Guitar Town that recording things digitally in Nashville you got a certain amount criticism. Is that true?
SE: Guitar Town, Exit 0, Copperhead Road, and The Hard Way, are all digital; Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape, half inch. I had no choice but to record digitally on the first two albums because Jimmy Bowen was a proponent of digital recording, and he ran MCA Nashville. (He tried his best not to sign me, but he'd promised Tony Brown and Emory Gordy they could sign anybody they wanted to, and when they said they wanted to sign me, Bowen said, "Anybody but Steve Earle.") That's why it said on the back, "Recorded on the Mitsubishi…" That was Bowen's deal with Mitsubishi that got him the machines for free, he had to record on the Mitsubishi machines. It was a hustle, he was getting a kickback.
So I didn't know any better. I'd made one analog record, which came out as Early Tracks, but it was originally supposed to be Cadillac, and it sounded really good. I didn't start thinking about that stuff until I got outta jail. Ray Kennedy was way into analog, he was a friend of mine that I knew from before jail. I went over to his place to make some demos and realized that when I made The Hard Way I had wanted that record to sound like a Faces record or something. But it was so clean, everything in its proper place, but that was the people I was working for and the format I was working in. Those are digital records and they sound the way they sound. It's not terrible, I'm not Steve Albini. I think he's a fucking idiot about that shit.
JB: You were very close with Townes Van Zandt. And I've heard you discuss previously that many of his albums felt overproduced, or that there were things done that detracted from his music. Is that your assessment of it now, or is there a different story?
SE: Yeah, no, I don't think Townes ever made a great record. The closest he came was a record that he meant to call Seven Come Eleven. And there's about half of The Late Great Townes Van Zandt that I love. None of it I hate, but the earlier records have moments that are just painful to listen to. You know, he didn't put up any kind of fight for it. I do understand it, because I sometimes didn't put that much time into what my records sounded like.
I did pay attention to the arrangements. Guitar Town has a thing because Richard Bennett and I worked on it for months before Emory or Tony ever got anywhere near it. All the arrangements were his. And I learned a lot about recording from him: what to do with an acoustic guitar, and what to do with other instruments in a recording studio, things I still do to this day.
I already know what my next record's gonna be. I made the decision to make a blues record, but I was writing other songs, and they have to have a home eventually. I just decided maybe I'll just make a country record. And by country record I mean, it seems weird, but what's more interesting to me is to make a record that, from where I am at this point in my career and in my life, would be the record after Guitar Town might have been like if Jimmy Bowen hadn't pissed me off.
I've never denied that the tension between us shoved me off into another direction. I ran off with a girl who had just signed Guns 'n Roses. I spent a lot of time in LA. The time that I spent in England influenced me even more. I met the Pogues, and Billy Duffy and I were running around a bit in those days. I was a big Cult fan. He was a fan of ours too. I think "She Sells Sanctuary" is one of the best singles I've ever heard. That record to me is like some Beatles or Monkees singles, something that still bounces around my head from time to time.
I'm really kind of hard for people to get a handle on, because I come from the 80's, but I was 31 when Guitar Town came out, so I really come from the 70's. And so this next record will sound closer to Waylon's Honky Tonk Heroes than it will probably anything else. We'll see. There's about half a record that already exists.
JB: You Keep a very busy touring schedule. Do you still experience that alone-ness when you are around your band and your audience?
SE: When traveling on the road with a band when you're the boss, there's not as much camaraderie as you'd think, especially if you're sober. It's one of those things; I've got the band and the crew on one bus, and I kind of stake out the back room for myself. I used to travel with the band in Star coaches with the bedroom in the back, and me and Alison and the baby on that bus, and the band in another bus. I couldn't really afford but it was the way we had to travel to do what we were doing and keep a family together on the road. As soon as Alison was gone, I went back to one bus. It's extended the life of my touring drastically because it's half the money. Buses are a big expense. I'm 60 years old. If it ever comes down to the choice between, going out in a bus by yourself, or going out in the van with the band, then the van and the band are staying home.
JB: Besides the necessity of earning income and promoting records, what the nourishing aspect of the road?
SE: It's part of the process as far as I know. Guy Clark told me when I was 19, "Songs aren't finished until you play them for the people." As songwriters, were all into getting our songs cut, but all of us wanted to make records and play for audiences. What I was part of was essentially a salon. We played songs for our publishers, but we didn't really give a fuck about what they thought. I cared about what happened when me, Guy Clark, Dave Loggins, Mickey Newbury, Steve Young, sometimes maybe even Neil Young, were sitting in a circle passing a guitar. That's what I cared about. When I impressed that audience, I felt like I had something.