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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.

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

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

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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