They seem an unlikely pairing - Joan Baez, the crystalline-voiced queen of folk, and alt-country hero Steve Earle, the once-notorious “last of the hardcore troubadours.”
But at 67, Baez is winning rave reviews for her terrific, eloquent new collaboration with Earle, “Day After Tomorrow.”
An oft-married, recovering drug addict, Earle, 53, has a reputation as an opinionated, confrontational, cantankerous sort. But like Baez, he’s also an activist who has crusaded for justice and peace.
“They say he’s gruff, etcetera, but he was a pussycat with me,” said Baez. “I didn’t have a whole lot of resistance to just about anything he brought up. He picked (the musicians), he’s worked with them, he knows how they get along with each other. They just had an intuitive knack. I knew with him there wouldn’t be any fuss, there wouldn’t be any diva business.”
Baez doesn’t recall when she discovered Earle’s music. “Long enough ago that I can’t remember,” she said. He was her opening act on tour a decade ago, and she started performing his song “Christmas in Washington,” which she recorded in 2003. A year later, she gave him an award in England.
The idea of him producing her album was hatched over lunch by Earle and Baez’s manager. She said she instantly agreed because of Earle’s musicality and because “both of us are planted in the Earth.”
Earle provided three of his own songs for the album, and Baez, with the aid of her manager, chose tunes by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Eliza Gilkyson and Patty Griffin.
“It wasn’t a bunch of protest songs,” said Baez. “The feeling was to have it be a bookend to the very beginning of my career. And it kind of is. It has the feeling of the ballad days but it’s completely contemporary.”
“Day After Tomorrow” is her 24th studio album.
“I can’t believe I’m still on my feet, let alone singing,” she said from New York, where she’d just played the legendary folk venue Town Hall.
She’s making a TV documentary about her life. “It takes the form of me having conversations with people - my ex-husband, Vaclav Havel, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt,” said Baez, who lives in Woodside, Calif. with her 95-year-old mother.
The singer has reached the point where “I can enjoy my life and not feel bad for doing that,” she explained. “I live in the cup half empty but slowly coming out of that in a way. But I couldn’t possibly be free and happy when I was young. Nobody knew that because I was so composed onstage. But offstage I was really chaotic and really neurotic. I worked hard enough through therapy that that’s not the case anymore.”
Baez got her start 50 years ago as a college freshman singing in Boston coffeehouses. She sang at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and two years later introduced her boyfriend, Bob Dylan, to the world. She marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama and sang “We Shall Overcome” at his march on Washington.
She has not seen the 2007 Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” in which Julianne Moore portrays a Baez-like character. But she did talk about her role as Dylan’s romantic interest in his rambling 1978 film “Renaldo & Clara.”
“I thought of it as a couple of Boy Scouts who got ahold of a camera. It doesn’t really have a thread,” she said. “I think it’s fairly ghastly. A lot of people love it. Don’t try to figure it out.”
Although she displayed a mordant wit in the 2005 Dylan documentary “No Direction Home,” Baez is not known for her sense of humor. In fact, “Saturday Night Live” once presented a mock game show entitled “Make Joan Baez Laugh.” So what makes her laugh?
“Sarah Palin,” she said with a chuckle.
Some things never change.