Commit: An Interview with Steve Earle

[10 May 2009]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Steve Earle is a fixture in the singer-songwriter firmament. Even excluding his first run of hugely popular records (before his reconstructive stint in prison in the early 1990s), he’s had more success in more ways than almost any of his contemporaries. When he got out, he was both sober and determined to make good on his promise to a fellow inmate not to blow this chance. He’s been making exceptional records, at the terrific rate of nearly one per year, ever since.

Earle is that rarest of birds: a songwriter’s songwriter who has maintained a commercial viability. Yet he is also an astonishingly prolific writer and producer, an actor (his role as Walon on HBO’s The Wire was central to the redemptive themes of the fifth and final season), a poet, a progressive activist, a continuously-touring musician, a husband, a father, and a recovering addict. The man is an inspiration to anyone who holds a pen, and not just because he is good at what he does, but because he remains impressively zealous about it all. There’s no quit on his horizon, no complacency in his tone. When I reached him by phone, he immediately apologized for missing our previous date, listing a series of prior commitments that got in the way. He’s “holed up in Woodstock working on a book”, he told me, “and it just slipped away” from him. Fair enough.

To my mind, the best interviews are the ones where you don’t have to say anything. Where the guy at the other end of the phone just wants to chat and, for whatever reason, has decided to talk to you about exactly the stuff you hoped he would. Earle hit the ground running when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of Townes Van Zandt, in anticipation of his just-finished album of covers of his mentor’s stuff. Having lived on a steady diet of Van Zandt and Earle since I first discovered them (in ‘92 and ‘88, respectively), I simply couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be discussing. Listening to a living master as he tells of his formative relationship with the man whom many consider to be the greatest songwriter to ever put pick to strings—this was my enviable experience. And, best of all, he came to play. I got one question off, and from that moment forward Earle barely stopped for breath. It got to the point where I was literally interrupting him just to get a word in edgewise. It was like getting caught in some kind of verbal tornado, all swirling with the chaos of an artist’s mutable certainties.

There’s passion, and then there’s fucking passion.

Could you talk a bit about your relationship to Townes Van Zandt? You were just a kid when you met, right? How did you fall in with these older guys?
I was 17. I was in Texas, and I was playing coffee houses for the most part because I was too young to play bars. And I had heard of Townes for, god, probably two or three years before I met him. I probably first heard of Townes when I was more like 14. I was living in San Antonio and San Antonio is kind of weird. It was, then and now, more conservative than anyplace else in Texas. It’s a military town and, you know, you were just a lot more isolated artistically, and in a lot of ways. But, there was one coffee house there, and there were people that came from Houston and Austin down there to play and they played Townes’ songs and started talking about him, so I started tracking the records down.

And then by the time I was about 16, I moved to Houston on my own—I left home when I was 16—and I saw Townes play quite a bit because by that time I knew who he was and he played Houston on a fairly regular basis. He was kinda from there. I mean, he was from Ft. Worth originally, but most of his friends were in Houston and in a lot of ways he was sort of spiritually and artistically from Houston more than he was from anyplace else. He went to Law School there ... well, took a pre-law course there, and that’s where he got out and first started playing gigs. It’s kinda where he started out.

I had been in the same room with him a couple of times, and I’d seen him play a lot, but I actually met him when he was in the audience—part of a very small audience—when I was playing a place that we both played called the Old Quarter in downtown Houston. It was 1972 sometime.

Is there any truth to the story that he heckled you from stage before you’d ever been introduced?
Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. That’s exactly what happened. He was very respectful while I was singing, but he was trying to get me to play the “Wabash Cannonball”, which I didn’t know. And finally I had to admit it. But, then I played one of his songs and he shut up.

He was 11 years older than me or something like that ... You know, I hung out with a lot of people that were older than me just because, well, I don’t know. That’s just the way it was. My uncle who was five years older than me gave me my first guitar and I kind of hung out with him, and learned to play from him ... And then, you know, I was the youngest guy hanging around this coffee house where I first heard about Townes, and I was the youngest guy in the group of people that, you know, was basically a cult that existed in Texas with Townes at the centre.

Photo: Ted Barron

Photo: Ted Barron

There’s a real wisdom to your early material and it seems amazing that it came from someone that age, but, you’ve got to wonder that if you’re hanging around with these guys, some of their age and experience is going to rub off on you.
Well some of it. Some of it is real age and experience and you’re able to emulate it when you’re that close, true. And, yeah, I did plenty of that. I think everybody, when they’re learning, does.
You’re famously on record for saying that Townes is the greatest songwriter of all time.
That’s not exactly what I said. It wasn’t a quote pulled from an interview, it was a blurb. I was asked for a blurb for a sticker for a record that Townes was putting out. And what I said was Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world, and I’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. That’s exactly what the quote was. I know, because I, you know, I made it up, and (laughing) that’s how I can remember it verbatim.

I mean: do I think Townes was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan? No. But: do I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath? Yes. And I think Bob Dylan believes that, too.

No argument here. You place pretty high on people’s lists yourself, especially for fans of the Americana scene, or whatever you want to call it. Can you talk about Townes’ influence on your writing?
I learned to do it from him and Guy Clark, you know, almost directly. I mean, there were other people around, but, they both took an active interest in me, and I (along with everyone else I knew) worshipped them, and especially Townes. I guess he was… It’s always shown in what I do. On this record I kinda got back in touch with how much, you know, I am Townes in some things that I do. The way I play guitar comes from Townes, and from Guy, and John Prine to some extent. [...] A lot of what I do has to do with, you know, Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the people who are sitting across the room from you are a much more powerful thing. You can see what they’re doing, and you can see where their hands are on the guitar. So that’s huge, and I was really lucky. And, all of us, including Guy and Townes, you know, we can all say that what we have in common is that we saw Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe in the same room. At the same time. On more than one occasion.

Playing Guitar Like Townes

You talk about playing guitar like Townes. It seems to me that on “Brand New Companion”, when Townes did it, there was a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins in his playing.
Yeah, that’s totally it. My recording of “Brand New Companion” is me doing Townes doing Lightnin’. That’s what it is. Townes had Lightnin’ down. You know? Really down. He was a really good guitar player. A lot of people, anybody that saw him in the ‘90s didn’t see that because his skills had diminished to some extent because of his health. When I first saw him in 1972—no, it was more like 1971 when I first saw him play—he was a stunning solo performer and a great guitar player. It’s huge—it’s a huge part of who I am as a performer and who I am as a musician that I was able to have that first-hand access to him.

This was just a singer-songwriter’s dream group of guys to watch and to learn from.
Well, there was a lot of songwriters in Texas. There was something about it. I mean, besides Townes. The night that I first saw Townes—not the night we were introduced and actually talked—I crashed Jerry Jeff Walker’s 33rd birthday party about ten days before I actually talked to Townes. In Austin. And Townes showed up that night. And Jerry Jeff was there, Milton Carroll was there, a guy named Bill Calorie (who’s gone now) was there, who else? B. W. Stevenson was there, Steve Fromholz was there. I mean, there were a lot of songwriters there! There was a lot going on in Austin. But, Townes was the guy that everybody was ... All those people, including some of the people like Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff who were commercially a lot more successful, they were all in awe of him. And you know Jerry Jeff was a contemporary of his, he knew Townes when he was a kid, but he knew how good Townes was. And he still knows how good Townes was.

Photo: Jim Herrington

Photo: Jim Herrington

An album of covers is often interpreted by listeners and fans as a contractual obligation, as filler, or even worse. But, surely that isn’t the case here, so what was the motivation? Does Townes need to be heard by the wider audience you can offer?
I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. I mean, I’ve talked about doing it for ten years. And I wanted to do it because I wanted to make a record that was about what a great songwriter he was rather than, you know, what a tragic figure he was. I’m really glad there’s a lot more people that know who he was than there were, you know, fifteen years ago when I got out of jail, but a lot of those people are the kind of people who have [The Velvet Underground’s] White Light/White Heat at the front of their record collection so everybody knows how intense they are. All this shit. You know, I love White Light/White Heat but I haven’t listened to it all the way through since it came out.

Well, “Sister Ray” is a slog…
Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of records like that, that are really great but ... I mean, Tim Robbins has made two of my favourite films. He’s made one called Cradle Will Rock that I’ve watched at least a hundred times, and Dead Man Walking which I think is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I was involved in it, and it’s about an issue that I’ve worked around for years and years, but I’ve only seen it twice. I saw the rough cut when it was sent it to me to write music for it, and I saw it in the theatre when it came out. And I have no desire to see it again. Because it’s just a little too intense. It’s nothing against dark material—I’m all for dark material. But there was more to Townes than that.

He wrote a lot of songs, and a lot of different kinds of songs, and he was really funny. And he was really great. I just don’t want, you know ... People want to see him as a tragic figure and there’s a lot that’s tragic about that story. But, number one: it was mostly his fault. For the most part, he shot himself in the foot. And I don’t know why, I don’t understand it, but I’ve known other people like that. He probably did it more than anybody else I’ve ever met. And it was heartbreaking. And it was hard to watch. I mean, even as fucked up as I was, I managed to be fairly successful while I was pretty fucked up, I mean, ‘till the wheels came off. But Townes managed to do exactly the wrong things at the right times to ensure that he had almost no career.

And then he actually had the most career in the ‘90s when he worked more, and more people knew who he was. You know, after [Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s hit cover of] “Poncho and Lefty”, after kind of settling in Nashville and the second set of kids, and getting out and working a little more. He actually toured more, and more people saw him play, later, in the last ten years of his life.

When his guitar playing was a little off-time, and his voice was…
Yeah, it’s just one of those things that happens if, you know, I mean, look: he was an alcoholic. It takes its toll after awhile. That’s one of the things it does is it causes nerve damage which affects your motor skills. That’s what happens. This record is about me trying to play as accurately as possible the way I remember him playing those songs in the ‘70s when I first met him. That’s mainly what my criteria were, for picking these songs and performing them and deciding if I had a performance that was ready to be committed to the record or not.

Photo: Ted Barron

Photo: Ted Barron

Your covers record contains only one song, the devastatingly bleak “Marie”, from any record after Flyin’ Shoes [1978]. Is this a commentary on Townes’ writing in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
I’m not a huge fan of Flyin’ Shoes as an album overall. There’s a few songs that I really love on that record, but there’s really two records. There’s the Nashville Sessions, which he made around the time that I met him. And it’s no longer available because it was released illegally. It was never paid for when it was made. But it ended up getting mastered into a CD sometime in the ‘90s, and then it got yanked back off the market again. You know the record I’m talking about. It was originally supposed to be called Seven Come Eleven. It had “Buckskin Stallion”; it had “Rex’s Blues”. And a lot of those songs were re-recorded for other records later, including Flyin’ Shoes. And, I didn’t think the versions of those songs that were re-recorded on Flying Shoes and At My Window [1987] were as good as the ones on the original record. But, then he just didn’t write much material after 1974. Or ‘73 really. The Late Great Townes Van Zandt was recorded in late 1971-72, and that Seven Come Eleven record was recorded in late ‘72 and early ‘73, and it was never released. It finally came out in the ‘90s. So, it’s not a comment on the material. There wasn’t that much in the way of new material. There’s two albums that were released after that so-called Nashville Sessions record, and both of them had material that was re-recorded. Do you see what I’m saying? [Note: Earle is leaving out No Deeper Blue, his last record of mostly new material that was released in 1995.]

So, “Marie” was pretty stunning when it popped up later because he hadn’t released anything, and he didn’t write a lot in the last like 15 years of his life. But, I think “Marie” is a great song, I think “The Hole” is a great song. And that was really late, too. I think “Marie” is a lot better song than “The Hole” is. I think they’re both great songs, but I didn’t think there was room for both of them, and I decided to record “Marie”.

I think that “Marie” might be his most complete story.
Well, it’s a story song which is unusual for him. That’s more Guy’s strong suit and my strong suit, whereas Townes’ stuff tends to be more poetic. But he sort of got into story songs. There’s a few of them back there, you know. “Rake” is one, and one I really dig and really wanted to record.

You’ve played Townes’ songs on records and onstage for years [“Tecumseh Valley” appears on Earle’s record Train A-Comin’, he performs “Rex’s Blues” as part of a medley on his Just An American Boy live record, and he provided a wicked version of “Two Girls” for the tribute record titled, simply, Poet]. How did you choose what to do here?
It was hard, you know. When I started this process, by the time I got serious, by the time I scheduled the sessions for this, I was down to about 28 songs. This is hard! He wrote a lot of great songs.

Some things got eliminated. “If I Needed You” is a really great Townes song, and I’ve been playing it all my life. But, two factors entered into it. I wanted to play “No Place to Fall”. I wanted to record it because it hadn’t been recorded as much, but it’s kind of the same song. It says exactly the same thing. I also ran into Guy just as I recorded the first set of sessions, the solo tracks, and he had just recorded “If I Needed You”, and that’s when I felt: OK, this isn’t meant to be, I just won’t record it.

Townes Van Zandt always struck me as a genius who felt the need to back away from the ownership of that genius. Especially in the later years he’d introduce material by talking about how he wasn’t really responsible for the thing, like he had just trained himself to capture it or something. He had a habit of suggesting that songwriting for him was about letting it drift through the window, and being open to it. You know, rather than sitting down and crafting something.
I think that’s true to a certain extent. I mean, there’s a part of me that’s really romantic that believes that that’s the core of how he wrote. But, there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe for one minute that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in one sitting on one continuous piece of paper. The manuscript exists, but I don’t think that it’s the real manuscript. I’ve never believed that. I’ve always thought that was bullshit. It’s too good for that to be true.

But, what I do know is: the reason that I am who I am is I saw Townes when I was 17 years old and I became aware really quickly that this guy was writing songs at an incredibly high artistic level. And he wasn’t doing it for money. He wasn’t doing it for any other reason except to do it as well as he could do it. (And maybe to get girls.) It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ll do this for awhile, and if I don’t make any money I’ll quit, and I’ll get a job.” He never considered stopping. He committed to doing it. He knew he was talented, he believed in his own ability, he believed in his own gifts. He didn’t believe in himself a lot as a person, and evidently didn’t think that he deserved anywhere near as much as I think he deserved to receive in return for it. And he constantly fucking sabotaged himself, and his life. But, the art itself he was definitely committed to.

And that’s what I learned: I learned that if you want to write songs at that level, then that’s what you have to do. You have to commit to doing it, no matter what. And, you know, ask [my son] Justin [Townes Earle]! He grew up on food stamps till he was three years old because I wasn’t gonna quit and get a job.

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