Steve Earle first made his mark with his debut album Guitar Town, which became a Number One country album but had enough edge to also appeal to many rock ‘n’ roll fans. Since then, he has had other milestone albums including the more rock-inspired Copperhead Road, the acoustic Train a Comin’ recorded after years of drug addiction that left him homeless, the transcendent Transcendental Blues, and a tribute album to his mentor Townes Van Zandt.
This interview was for a preview article for noozhawk.com for a concert on 9/6/16 by Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara in support of their 2016 album Colvin & Earle. It was done by phone on 8/19/16. (Alexandra Valenti photo)
Steve Earle: We’ve known each other for a long time. She recorded a song of mine [“Someday” on her Cover Girl album] when I was at kind of a low point in my life. We’d run into each other now and again, and she suggested that we do a tour together. It was a thing she’s done with other artists – Mary Chapin Carpenter and a few other people – where one of you sings a song, the other sings a song, you sing a few songs together, and tell a lot of stories. We did a tour like that. But for us, the deal was the way we sang together. It made me really want to make a record. I wanted to write songs for that. There’s something about the way we sing together that I thought sounded cool, so that’s what it’s really all about – the singing.
JM: What can people look forward to at the upcoming show? Are you mostly performing together, or are there some solo pieces?
SE: We do some of our own stuff, but we do it together for the most part. There’s a couple of times when you’ll hear us sing something by ourselves, but neither one of us really leaves the stage. On the record, you never hear our voices separately except on one song, and that’s a new song. There’s some covers, there’s some older songs of both of ours, and there’s some new songs. A little bit of this and a little bit of that.
JM: Do you have a favorite Shawn Colvin song?
SE: Yeah, it’s called “That Don’t Worry Me Now”. We do it in the show. It’s on a record of hers called These Four Walls, and it’s always been my favorite song of hers.
SE: Well, it’s always humbling when you run across somebody like him. He was the real deal. But I’m 10 years older than he lived to be, now, and I’ve written songs for a lot of that time. So I’m probably less in awe as a songwriter than I was. But I think that happens. I still think he’s one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived.
JM: What is the most important thing you learned from Townes Van Zandt?
SE: Just him being an example of the idea that he made the decision to write songs at the level where it was literature, whether he made any money or not.
JM: You’re probably aware that your album Guitar Town is 30 years old this year.
JM: What are your reflections on that album, through the lens of 30 years?
SE: I’m proud of it. It’s a record that ends up on a lot of lists, and is getting talked about again. We’re going to do a handful of dates to commemorate the anniversary at the end of the year. One will be the night before Hardly Strictly Bluegrass starts, at the Great American Music Hall – that’ll be the only California one. There’s going to be a few in Canada.
And we’ll play Guitar Town for the benefit that we do at my son’s school. The school’s called the Keswell School, but we do a benefit called John Henry’s Friends that we started last year. This year it’s going to be in December [4th and 10th?] – it’ll be the City Winery the first night, and then the Town Hall in New York City the second night. It’ll be me and the Dukes doing Guitar Town in its entirety, Colvin will be there as well, and a special guest that we haven’t announced yet.
JM: One of my favorites of your albums is Train a Comin’, which was recorded about 10 years after Guitar Town. Where was your mind at when you started that album? I know you’d just gone through a rough patch.
SE: I just wanted to make a record… There was a lot of resistance to me making an acoustic record like that, at the time. I decided I’d make that record first, because I’d always thought about it, and I went back to some older songs that had never been recorded, and I wrote a few new ones. I put a few things aside for the next record, which I knew was going to rock a little harder. So I was kind of writing two records at the same time. I made Train a Comin’ in like January of ’95, and recorded I Feel Alright six months later, and it came out a few months after that.
JM: Your songs have been covered by a number of other artists over the years. Do you have a favorite cover version?
SE: Probably Emmy’s version of “Goodbye”.
JM: I love that one. Emmylou can’t do wrong, can she?
JM: Not too long ago Guy Clark passed away, and of course you worked with him and were friends with him for a long time. How would you describe the Guy Clark that you knew?
SE: He was always venerable. We just did a tribute concert the other night at the Ryman Auditorium. When I see pictures of him when he was young, they shock me. Pictures of me don’t shock me – I think I still look like that, but I know I don’t. That’s just the way men are delusional about mirrors. But when I see pictures of Guy from when I first met him, it’s sort of shocking to me because I don’t remember him… He always looks venerable to me.
To me, he was like Merlin in the Arthurian legends, like he was living backwards in time, or something. He was just always venerable. He really was my teacher. You know, we all belonged to a Townes Van Zandt cult, but Guy was a teacher. He always had younger artists that he worked with, younger writers that he worked with. That was just one of the things he did.
SE: I played bass in his road band, but on the record I just sang background vocals. On that record and the next record, Texas Cookin’.
JM: What was that experience like? Because you were pretty young at that point…
SE: I was 19 when I first started playing in his band, probably 20 when Old No. 1 came out. It was a big deal, because I went to Nashville already knowing who Guy Clark was, and I met him there because I knew Townes already. But it was a big deal. It was a very big deal for me. It’s the first record I ever got my name on.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
SE: You just have to believe in yourself. There will be times when you’re the only person that does. That doesn’t mean don’t listen to anybody. Pay attention to your audience. Don’t pay so much attention to the other musicians and artists that you know. Pay attention to the audience. If the audience is responding, then you’re on to something.
JM: What are your plans coming up? Any recordings in the works?
SE: Yeah, I’m almost in the final stages of writing a new record, which I’ll record in Austin, probably, in December. It’ll be out next year.
JM: I’m a fan of The Replacements, and I understand that you opened at least one show for them. What do you remember about that? Was that a crazy time?
SE: It was pretty stupid. I mean, I love The Replacements, too, but I also never met people who had less respect for their fans. The first time I opened for The Replacements, it was a pretty good show, and the next time it was a lot of 60’s TV show theme song covers, and Bob [Stinson] wandering around in his underwear. We had six weeks of dates with them, and that night [Paul] Westerberg broke his wrist, and everybody was out of work for four or five weeks. So, you know. That part of it I don’t get. I think they’re maybe the most overrated band in rock ‘n’ roll history in a lot of ways. Sorry.
JM: Well, if you caught them on a good night they were great, but not every night was a good night.
SE: He’s [Westerberg] a really, really good writer who has never, ever for one second of his whole life lived up to his true potential. It’s just one of those things, and that just irritates me. It seems like a waste to me.
JM: I know that you’re, shall we say, a politically aware artist. What do you think about the upcoming election?
SE: Well, I think that if everybody doesn’t get out there and vote, we’re fucked. Right now things look really good, and what I’m scared of is what happened in Britain, where a lot of people in the cities thought, “This’ll never pass”, to leave the European Union. That vote was like 75%, and normally turnout in important elections like that is higher.
So this could go the other way. There’s plenty of people out there that watch a lot of reality television and Fox News, and they will vote for him. If they vote, they’ll vote for Trump. They’ll either vote for Trump or they won’t vote for anybody at all. I’m a real-life lefty, and I supported Bernie Sanders for every second that he was in the race, until he was out. But the system we have is the system that we have, and the options now have narrowed down to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
If you don’t think it makes a difference, when whoever the next President of the United States is going to determine the future of Roe vs. Wade without a doubt – the Chief Justice that’s there is there to overturn Roe vs. Wade as soon as he has the votes, as soon as he has the liberal judges in the ground. That’s why he’s there. That’s why he let the health care bill go. He’s keeping his power for that. So I’m telling my lefty friends, “Don’t you fucking dare decide that you can keep your liberal soul pure and not vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s going to get elected anyway.” That’s a real fucking dangerous way to think right now.