Commit: An Interview with Steve Earle

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.

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.