ON F0LK MUSIC, POLITICAL ACTIVISM, AND STEALING YOUR GIRLFRIEND
By Al Lovelock
What if Elvis had crawled out of the abyss before it was too late? Or Janis or Jim or Kurt? Steve Earle, it seems, is one of American music's few comeback success stories. It's been about five years since Earle rose from the depths and began his personal and artistic comeback. For the most part it's been such a triumph, his journey so inspiring, and his songs and political pronouncements so on target that it's tempting to treat him like some kind of propheta man who has seen the other side of the mountain.
Earle might be a "pilgrim on the road, boys," as he sang on The Mountain, but he's no saint. He's still got the outlaw inside him and controversy sticks to him like pitch on cowhide. Although The Mountain, his 1999 bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band, won critical bouquets and was well received among his own fans, in the insular world of hardcore bluegrass fandom there were bad rumblings. Then last year Earle and McCoury had a sudden and less-than-amicable split. The bluegrass elder claimed that Earle's frequent onstage foul language was something he did not want to bring to the bluegrass world. Earle flat-out denies this was the reason for the split. But on his new album, he mischievously stirs that conflict, stating between songs, "Remember friends, there is no place in vulgarity for bluegrass."
Earle is not above being a little pissy. When confronted with a critical review that suggested he was starting to repeat himself musically, Earle got agitated and personal. "I know why he'd write that," Earle accused the revieer. "I stole his girlfriend a few years ago." Okay, you can't be transcendental all the time. The remark was so high school it made this writer wish he could have known Earle during the singer's San Antonio school daze, back when he was a guitar-picking, dope-smoking nonconformist frequently getting clobbered by "square-headed cowboys named Otto."
It was shortly after high school when Earle met his greatest teacher, the late Townes Van Zandt, who took the young musician under his wing. Later, following that Hillbilly Highway from Texas to Nashville, Earle would meet Guy Clark, the man who became his second major musical mentor. But in a strange twist of events, Earle got bigger, commercially at least, than either of his heroes after "Guitar Town" became a bona fide country radio hit. To the dusty old tribe of cosmic cowboys who loved Willie and Waylonand Guy and Townesback in the '70s, Earle's success made it seem like the outlaws had finally won the country music range wars.
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The mid '80s up to 1990 were years of great accomplishment for Earle, who released four critically acclaimed albums during this period: Guitar Town, Exit 0, Copperhead Road, and The Hard Way. But it also was a time in which Earle's artistic integrity led to battles with his record label and the Nashville establishment, conflicts that surely damaged his careerthough not as badly as his increasing use of hard drugs and subsequent legal problems.
By the early '90s, the prince had fallen. Earle calls the next ugly four-year period his "vacation in the ghetto," a fairly literal translation. During this time his only releases were a live album, Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator, and a half-hearted greatest hits collection. But then came the great redemption. Facing a prison sentence, Earle instead opted for a 45-day-long drug rehabilitation program. Though he initially saw the break as a scam to avoid hard time, Earle took the program to heart, took a cold hard look at himself, and made the most important decision of his life.
What has followed might be called Earle's personal Hillbilly Renaissance period. It started with the acoustic album, Train A Comin' (1995), recorded with Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Emmylou Harris singing background. I Feel Alright (1996) was the official announcement that the train had pulled into the stationthat Earle was back for good. On its heels came El Corazón (1997), The Mountain, and now Transcendental Blues. All along, side projects have been thick and rich. He's done split singles with the Supersuckers and V-Roys; contributed to the Dead Man Walking and The Horse Whisperer soundtracks; gotten involved with Buddy Holly, Jimmy Rodgers, and Gram Parsons tribute albums; recorded a truck-driving song for the '96 Rig Rock Deluxe album and a tune with Elvis sidemen Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. And somewhere along the line he found time to start a record company, E-Squared, with partner Jack Emerson, which led Earle to work with several younger talents such as Cheri Knight, Bap Kennedy, Six String Drag, and, most recently, Marah.
Now Earle is branching out into the world of literature. His collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses (Houghton-Mifflin), is scheduled for release early next year. Meanwhile, he's engaged in a year-long personal project in which he writes a haiku each day. "It helps you focus," Earle says. "Haiku is something that anyone can do." Somehow I doubt anyone else's haikus are quite like Steve Earle's.
Three years ago you sang "Come Back Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King," in "Christmas In Washington." At the time it seemed nostalgic. But now, after the demonstrations in Seattle, it seems activism is being reborn. When you wrote that song were you feeling something in the air?
No, it was more like I was feeling something that wasn't in the air. At that time there didn't seem to be any grassroots activism. I was on the West Coast at the time of the Seattle demonstrations. I was doing some benefit concerts with Emmy [Harris] when I heard that Cheri Honkala [president of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union] had been arrested in Seattle. Of course, there were two versions of what went on in Seattle. The CNN version focused on that small group of anarchists from Portland. Maybe it's a capital crime in Seattle to smash up a Starbucks, I don't know. The mainstream media made it sound like these protesters were destroying a bunch of small businesses, which just wasn't true. They tore up Starbucks and The Gap. The truth is the Seattle police just weren't prepared for 30,000 people in the street. I've heard eyewitness accounts of police firing rubber bullets and teargassing people when it wasn't called for at all. It was a very well-organized protest, an international protest with labor unions and environmental groups working together.
When did you first get involved with politics?
In the '60s and '70s, when I was in high school, I was against the Vietnam War. I did protest, yes. But it's not about politics. It's about grassroots activism. There was a guy stalking me when I was playing anti-death-penalty rallies. He finally approached me. Turns out he was from the Green Party and he wanted me to run for US Senate. [Laughs] That's not what I'm about. They pay senators good money to do what they do. It's grassroots activism I'm interested in, not politics.
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As the keynote speaker at South By Southwest, you brought up the possibility of boycotting the state of Texas until they stop executing people.
I wanted to make people aware that part of the money you spend in Texas, everyone going to South By Southwest, at least some of that money goes to paying to execute people. It might have to come to a boycott. I know there's talk among some European groups opposed to the death penalty of boycotting Texas. The state really depends on tourism. I know San Antonio, where I grew up, does.
And yet your new album, Transcendental Blues, doesn't have much political or social content.
It's got a lot of love songs on it, because I'm in love right now. My girlfriend and I sat down and listened to it and she said she was amazed at what a detailed account of our relationship is on this album. So this is more of a personal album. Some of them are like that. It doesn't mean I'm turning away from activism. I used to go to anti-death-penalty rallies, sing a couple of songs, and leave. Now I'm helping organize these rallies. But as far as my music goes, I'm always changing. I guess that's a part of me. At one point in my life I knew I had to change or I would die. It's part of growing up. If you stop growing, you die.
There are three main things people know about your youth. You grew up in Texas, where you were beat up by square-headed cowboys named Otto. At some point you got into music. And at some point you got into drugs. As far as the music and drugs go, which came first?
Oh, I think they came along about the same time. I started playing guitar about the same time I started smoking pot.
How old were you?
About 13, I guess.
You joke about getting beat up. But did being a musician make you something of an outcast?
I think being against the Vietnam War made me an outcast. That wasn't a popular stance where I grew up. Actually there were five or six of us outcasts back then. I would carry my guitar everywhere I went.
What musicians inspired you to want to carry that guitar?
Oh, Elvis, the Beatles. I probably gravitated more to acoustic music because I didn't have an electric guitar. I couldn't afford one and my folks couldn't afford to buy me one. We weren't poor. My dad was an air traffic controller. But there were five kids. Anyway, I hooked up with Townes Van Zandt at a fairly early age. Townes, Jerry Jeff Walker...
I met Guy a little later, after I moved to Nashville.
How did you hook up with Townes?
I crashed Jerry Jeff Walker's birthday party. I hitchhiked to Austin. There was Townes wearing a fringed jacket that Jerry Jeff had given him for his birthday just a few weeks before. Then I saw him lose it all in five minutes. I thought, "Hell, this is my kind of guy." A few weeks later I was playing a gig in Houston and Townes was in the audience heckling me. Friendly heckling, but heckling. He kept yelling, "Play 'The Wabash Cannonball'." I finally said, "I don't know 'The Wabash Cannonball'." And he said, "You call yourself a folk singer and you don't know 'The Wabash Cannonball'?" Then I sang one of his songs and he shut up for the rest of the night.
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When you did move to Nashville you were Guy Clark's bass player. When I interviewed Guy for Thirsty Ear Magazine last year he said you weren't a very good bass player. Here's your chance to rebut that.
[Laughs] No, he's right. I really wasn't much of a bass player.
Jumping ahead a bit in your musical career, when Guitar Town came out, it seemed for one bright shining moment that you were the king of Nashville, the king of country music.
That's what's known as Nashville's great credibility scare of the mid '80s. That was probably an accident. I was hardly a priority for MCA [Earle's first label].
You were played a lot on the country video channels.
["Guitar Town"] was the first video MCA [Nashville] ever made. [Company President Jimmy] Bowen wasn't crazy about videos. He thought they were just a fad. MCA decided if they were going to have me, they would have to "break" me. So Exit 0 [Earle's second album] became the sacrificial lamb. They made sure it wasn't promoted, it wasn't supported, and it didn't sell.
The rap on Exit 0 is that the songs were great but it was overproduced. Do you agree with that?
No, I don't think that's true at all. It was recorded about six months after Guitar Town. Both those records probably have too much reverb. Same for Copperhead Road. But that doesn't mean it's overproduced. That's just how records were made back then. I'm still very proud of that album. Exit 0 didn't sell. That was right before MCA transferred me out of the country division. Copperhead Road did well, but The Hard Way didn't sell because that was right before they decided to get rid of me completely.
I think The Hard Way is your most underrated album.
Yeah, that was from a dark and painful period of my life. I think that's the only one of my albums not available on CD right now.
Do you ever perform "Have Mercy On Me" these days?
No, I haven't done that one in a long time.
I also was going to ask you about "Number 29" from Exit 0 .
Yeah, I did that one as part of the solo portion of my last tour. That's a song I'll probably always dust off.
Copperhead Road. It seems that more casual fans, people who really aren't into music that much, will say that's their favorite Steve Earle album.
Well, that is my top-selling album. It's the first one that was promoted as a rock album. A lot of people think that's my first album. People who didn't listen to country radio weren't familiar with the first two.
But you still had ties to the country world.
This was an amazing period. Sometimes Hank [Williams] Junior would call on us to open for him for some of his bigger shows.
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And didn't you do some shows with the Replacements?
We opened for the Replacements once. We were supposed to do five or six dates with them, but on that first night Paul Westerberg broke his wrist. He was trying to do a handstand. I was standing in the wings and I heard his wrist go pop! You could hear it. It was louder than the Replacements.
Did you keep in touch with Westerberg through the years?
No, I haven't seen him in years. He likes to keep to himself. That's cool.
What was it like recording with the Pogues on "Johnny Come Lately"? Did Shane MacGowan live up to his reputation?
It was great. That was in '88 when the Pogues were at their peak, just after they'd released If I Should Fall From Grace With God. I was over in England opening for them. I'd come out during their set and sing "Johnny Come Lately" with them. Shane is Shane. He's one of the best writers alive but he keeps trying to slowly kill himself.
You in touch with him at all?
Oh yeah, I see Shane all the time.
You ever feel like shaking him and saying, "Wake up"?
Naw. I know that wouldn't have worked on me. Or anyone else who's been there. That's not part of the program. There's no way someone else can decide for you to go straight.
Your own years in the wildernessat what point did you decide that you'd drifted too far from the dock?
It wasn't really like that. It was more like I knew I was dying, but there wasn't anything I could do about it. I just wondered why it was taking so long. Then I got arrested and thrown in jail and they gave me a chance to go to rehab. At first I just wanted to go to rehab to get out of jail. But then when I went I got serious about it.
Although we're all familiar with the many failures of the American corrections system, in your case it seemed to work.
Oh no, make no mistake about it. Prison didn't cure me. Treatment is what cured me. Had I been given a long prison sentence without treatment, I'd probably be dead. There's dope in prison, you know. They've made the same mistake with the War On Drugs that they did with Vietnam. They're trying to keep score by a body count. It makes politicians look good to have all these thousands of arrests, to have all these people in prison. So they arrest these addicts. That's easy to do. It's harder to catch big-time suppliers, so they get away. I was in a cellblock with all these men, and not one of them was a threat to anyone but themselves. These guys didn't need to be in jail, they needed to be in treatment.
But so many people just keep going in and out of treatment. It seems like until you yourself decide to work it, treatment does no good.
I wouldn't say that. I believe you take something with you every time you go through treatment. For some people it takes a few times. And sure, people relapse all the time. As for myself I don't believe I have the luxury of relapse. I was so close to death during that period that I think it would kill me if I were to relapse.
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By the time you came back in '95 with Train A Comin', there was an Americana radio format, there was a budding "alternative country" movement. Was this helpful for artists like yourself?
Oh yeah. I thought it was great. You know, I missed out on the whole Uncle Tupelo thing. During those years I was driving around listening to Dr. Dre. By the time I got out of jail, I think Wilco had just released their first album. And Son Volt was working on their first one. I met Jay Farrar [of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt] about this time and he could cite Townes Van Zandt chapter and verse. That made a big impression on me. That was a drum I'd been
pounding for a long time. It was good to have an alternative country scene to help artists like myself who fell between the cracks. Now, in the beginning, there were some groups who seemed to be in it just for the vibe. They'd just add a twangy sound to their music.
Kind of a bandwagon thing?
Yeah, but I don't think too many of them are around anymore. The alternative country thing is very indie driven, and I like that. At this point in history the major labels are in a period of just eating each other up. I think we have four major companies these days [actually, five] and they're all in the mode of meeting the bottom line instead of making art. So it's a great time for independents, because there are still people out there who still want good, honest music. Of course, there's such a thing as being more-indie-than-thou. That's an attitude I hate. But in general, I think things are pretty healthy. One thing the alternative country movement helped do is revive the coffeehouse as a venue for music. My sister [Stacey Earle] has turned that into a career. Now, if you can't afford to take a band on the road, you can go out and play solo acoustic. I have little patience with bands who sit around and whine how they can't find a major label to come buy them a bus. Now I've got a bus, but that's because we went out and earned the money to buy it. But, I mean, don't sit around and wait for the majors.
So you believe the era of the man with the big cigar who's gonna make you a star is an antiquated idea?
I do. Go out and make it happen.
You have your own record company, E-Squared, and I know you're probably prejudiced in favor of the acts in your stable. But are there any other alternative country bands or acts that you admire?
Well, Jay Farrar is a fine writer and has a great voice. Richard Buckner, his voice is tremendous. Ryan Adams [of Whiskeytown] just writes some great songs and his fucking voice is the best in the business.
Speaking of bands on your label, how's the Marah album [Kids In Philly] doing?
It's doing good. It's sold about 3,000 copies so far, which means it's sold to their fan base. They were on a smaller label before and that's about what they used to sell. But we think they're ready for that next step. We're just trying to figure out how. They're going to be on the side stage of the Jimmy Page/Black Crowes tour this summer. That sounds like a great opportunity for them.
You were on tour with Del McCoury last year and it came to a bad end. That must have hurt.
Well, I got to play with and make an album [The Mountain] with the greatest bluegrass band working today. But it came to an end over money and billing.
So it wasn't over vulgarity in bluegrass?
No, that was bullshit, absolute bullshit. That's what Del said in some interview, that he left because of the language I use onstage. But that's just bullshit. He didn't want to go on the European tour, then I offered him more money and he agreed to. Then he wanted to share my spot on the David Letterman show. So it was money and billing.
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Have you talked to Del since then?
No, I haven't talked to Del. I talk with Ronnie [McCoury, Del's son and mandolin player].
Why were bluegrass fans so aghast at you doing a bluegrass album?
I love bluegrass. Most of the music I buy is bluegrass. Somebody called me the bluegrass antichrist in some bluegrass magazine. I didn't mind that much, though. Number two on the list was Ricky Skaggs. Not all bluegrass fans are like that, but some really are. I don't know. Maybe it's the hillbilly version of indier-than-thou. They don't want to bring anyone new into the scene because they don't want the scene to grow.
Speaking of different types of music, at South By Southwest your encore was "Breed" by Nirvana. What prompted that?
I've just always loved that song. Actually we recorded that song for the Japanese version of [Transcendental Blues]. In Japan, the record companies require you to have an extra song that's not available anywhere else. This is so the fans there will buy the Japanese version and not an import. I told [manager] Danny Goldberg that I didn't want to write another song for the album. It might turn out to be a good one and then nobody here could get it. Plus I tend to see albums as complete works. You can't just go add other songs to it. So Danny recommended we do a cover. I thought of "Breed." I've just always liked it. I was a Nirvana fan. [Nevermind] was always my favorite. I didn't like the other one [In Utero] because I think [producer] Steve Albini is a jerk. Butch Vig [producer of Nevermind] is an old friend. Butch is a great guy, Steve Albini is a jerk, so I went with a song from the album Butch produced. Also I did it just to surprise Danny, who used to manage Nirvana. I think it worked. It's a fun song to play.
But I have to buy a damned import to get it.
There's a definite Irish influence on Transcendental Blues.
Oh yeah, there's the two "Irish" songs, "Galway Girl" and "Steve's Last Ramble," which were recorded with the Sharon Shannon Band. Sharon's just an incredible accordian player.
"Halo 'Round The Moon" is about Galway Bay, isn't it?
Yeah, it was written in Galway. I spend a lot of time in Galway these days. It's a great place.
Do you own a second home there?
No, it's a lot easier and cheaper just to rent. I go over there and rent a place for a couple of months. Maybe I'll buy a place there some day.
The review in No Depression of Transcendental Blues was basically favorable, but it said that you sometimes repeat yourself.
I haven't seen this review, so I can't really respond. I don't read No Depression. But aren't you a good enough writer that you can write what you think without basing it on someone else's work?
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I hope so. Is it a valid criticism, though, that you are repeating yourself musically?
I would quit right now if I thought that was true. Now, okay, "I Feel Alright" and "I Ain't Ever Satisfied"those are basically the same song, updates of what I'm going through right at the moment.
This is now your 10th album. What songs stand out as your favorites, and are there any that now embarrass you?
I'm not embarrassed by any song I've ever recorded. The best song I ever wrote was "My Old Friend The Blues" [from Guitar Town]. That one and "Valentine's Day" [from I Feel Alright] and "The Boy Who Never Cried" [from Transcendental Blues].
What inspired "The Boy Who Never Cried"?
That was a fable. I didn't know how it was going to end until I finished it. I think it's a fable about men, how men are raised not to cry, not to show emotion. Hey, that review in No Depression. Who wrote that?
I don't remember. I don't have it in front of me .
Was it [editor] Peter Blackstock?
No, it wasn't Peter.
Cuz if it was, I know why he'd write that. I stole his girlfriend a few years ago.
You did? [Laughs. Blackstock did not write the review, and said he prefers to keep his "personal experiences" with Earle private.] If you were to do an album of cover songs, name five or six songs you'd choose.
Oh, man, what would I choose? "Birth, School, Work, Death" by the Godfathers. You know them? They were one of the few great English guitar groups of the '80s. Then maybe something else by the Rolling Stones, maybe "Take It Or Leave It." It was on an album called Flowers, but it was the B-side of one of their singles. And then I'd probably do some songs by Townes. Actually, if I ever was going to do a whole album of cover songs, it probably would be a whole album of Townes' songs.