The Earle of music, Manhattan and more
September 20, 2013
When Steve Earle named his 1986 debut album "Guitar Town," the title didn't come from some mythical place where the walls are hung with Telecasters and Les Pauls and D-28s. Earle was thinking of a very real city — Nashville, Tenn., about which John Sebastian wrote, "There's thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers," all of whom play "clean as country water" and "wild as Mountain Dew."
"I think my albums have always been about places. Guitar town — that's the CB radio handle for Nashville," Earle said from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was spending a day off before heading to gigs in the college town of Columbia, Missouri; Chicago, home of the 56-year-old Old Town School of Folk Music; and Aspen, where Earle once sweated through a gig at the Wheeler Opera House while he was reportedly passing a kidney stone. The title of Earle's second album, "Exit 0," from 1987, might have worked perfectly as a metaphor — "'Exit 0' was about living nowhere, which is what several decades of my life were like," he said — but that name too came from a specific location. "We were driving on the New Mexico-Arizona border and I saw that sign. I said, 'Stop — this is it!' Maybe it was the mushrooms involved. It was the '80s."
Earle has continued to use locations in both specific and symbolic ways; his post-9/11 album, critical of the Bush administration and America as a whole, was titled "Jerusalem." It's possible that Earle has only become more focused on place. His 2007 album, "Washington Square Serenade," which earned a Grammy in the best contemporary folk/Americana category, was a tender but tough tribute to Earle's latest place of residence — New York City, and specifically, the historically Bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood. After spending decades swimming against the tide in Southern locales — living in Texas while speaking out against the death penalty; living in Nashville while engaging in artistic battle against safe and predictable, watered-down country music — Earle, in his 50s, grew weary of politically hostile surroundings and headed north.
"I got tired of being behind enemy lines," Earle, who plays Belly Up on Monday, Sept. 23, with the Dukes, his signature backing band that dates back to the early '80s, but has only been an occasional collaborator in the decades since. "I'm from Texas; I lived in Tennessee 33 years. As things become more polarized, we went through these wars … . I still feel more comfortable living in a neighborhood where most everyone on my block thinks the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea. And of Afghanistan. I think retribution is a faulty premise, a non-starter. It's not a good enough reason to attack someone, start a war. Because you know innocent people are going to get hurt. Defending yourself is not the same as retribution."
“I’m looking out the window, looking at an America that was closer to what Woody Guthrie saw.”
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For most of his career, it has seemed that Earle thrived on a contentious atmosphere rather than a placid one. He was a country music bad boy somewhat in the mold of Johnny Cash; Earle suffered through heroin addiction and a stint in prison, and took actions that bordered on career suicide. He wrote a play, "Karla," about Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed since Texas reinstated the death penalty. He wrote and recorded a song, "John Walker's Blues," that was sympathetic to the American man who went to fight with the Taliban. He made an album, 2004's "The Revolution Starts Now," that took direct aim at Condoleezza Rice and the Federal Communications Commission, and earned a Grammy. Earle has married seven times. His best-known quote is not from a song, but is an observation about music that rings with Earle-style confrontation: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots ad say that," he famously said in 1995 about Texas musician Van Zandt.
But in New York, Earle has found the pleasures of a pleasant life, built not around countering the prevailing culture, but in joining it. At 58, Earle's favorite activities outside of music are theater and baseball.
"I probably just needed the input," Earle said of his mid-'00s relocation to New York. "Theater's a lot of it — I'm interested in it as an artist and as a consumer. That's all I do when I'm home — go see theater and baseball. I need to live somewhere I can do those things, and New York has them both."
In theater, Earle is drawn to Shakespeare, Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter — playwrights known for their use of language. "I like great words, theater as poetry," he said. "I like musicals if they're great, I think we went through a state where it wasn't so great, wasn't art. It was art when Stephen Sondheim was doing it."
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Earle's latest album is an examination of another specific place: America. "The Low Highway," released in April, looks at the country, post-Recession, from back roads and nearly lost neighborhoods. "Empty homes on dead-end streets/ People lining up for something to eat/ And the ghost of America watches me," Earle sings in a sorrowful tone in the opening title track. Earle's music has generally been a throwback to earlier times, when country music didn't toe the line and had an element of danger to it. But if "The Low Highway" is even more of a throwback than usual, it might be because the landscape Earle sees is a reminder of earlier times, and not in the best of ways.
"I'm looking out the window, looking at an America that was closer to what Woody Guthrie saw," Earle said, noting that he wrote the songs for "The Low Highway" while touring behind the 2011 album, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." "We never saw times this hard. Things are tough out there. I just started writing my songs and this is what I came up with."
It is a rough picture that Earle depicts. In "Burnin' It Down," a man reflects on the optimism he felt some time ago, the endless horizon of the future. Now he's living half a mile from where he grew up, his hope is gone, and he's thinking about torching his pickup truck. "I'm getting old/ Got no place to go/ It's all become unwound."
"It's important to know we're seeing really hard times," Earle said. "It's a recovery, but not a recovery that's for everybody. It's my job to tell these stories."
Earle wants to make sure that these stories leave room for hope. "It could have been completely bleak. But I'm an optimist at heart," he said. Some of that uplift comes from the music itself; "The Low Highway" is Earle's first album made with the Dukes (and the Duchesses, which includes Earle's current spouse, singer Allison Moorer), and the sound is superb. Earle calls the Dukes the best band he's had, and then reassesses: "The best band there is."
But there are songs that add to the high spirits. The stomping "That All You Got?" takes a defiant stance against Katrina-like hard times: "Everybody on the night shift knows/ Might as well keep on dancin' till the next wind blows." "Love's Gonna Blow My Way" is a similar statement of betting on better times, to a jaunty swing beat.
A good part of Earle's perspective, and the material on "The Low Highway," comes from time spent in post-storm New Orleans. Earle played the street musician Harley Wyatt in the TV series "Treme." Though the character was killed off two seasons ago, Earle still writes songs for the series, and New Orleans remains on his mind. "The Low Highway" includes "After Mardi Gras," a recognition of the mess that Mardi Gras makes of New Orleanians, but also the need to take a vacation from one's problems, even if for one debauched day.
Being in New Orleans sharpens Earle's view of working-class America, government, and the relationship between the two. "I get to see these economic times we're struggling through," he said. "What happened, and more important, what didn't happen, after Katrina?"
Earle has given some thought to spending more time in New Orleans. "Live there full-time? Maybe not, because I kind of need New York. I need the theater," he said. "I've thought about a shotgun duplex in the bywaters, to have a base of operations."
Earle has also spent time in Barcelona, and in Paris, where Dukes bassist Kelly Looney lives. But he nixes those as places to live; since he doesn't speak Catalan or French.
"I think I'd end up language starved, given what I do," he said. "I depend on input. I'd run out of stuff coming in. I need stuff to steal."
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