Commit: An Interview with Steve Earle

photo credit: Ted Barron

Earle digs through a mutual past for a new album of Townes Van Zandt covers, and he explains what it was like knowing, and being heckled by, the songwriter himself.

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

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.

Next Page





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.