Goodbye Guitar Town: An Interview with Steve Earle

Steve Earle
Washington Square Serenade
New West

If you know of Steve Earle at all, you know that his life has been marked by trouble and controversy — much of it self-inflicted. Drug addiction, failed marriage after failed marriage, run-ins with the law, imprisonment, homelessness… Many artists have written about outsiders and outlaws, rebels and those just plain determined to destroy themselves, but few have actually lived the chaos they’ve documented in song. Steve Earle, on the other hand, has lived through it all, and the fact that he is actually still alive is just as surprising to him as those who have witnessed his storied past. “There was a point when I didn’t think that I’d live to be forty,” he concedes, his voice a mixture of relief and astonishment.

Other musicians’ flirtations with drugs and disaster are often portrayed as glamorous and fun, but Earle’s struggles were pure hell. At one point in the middle of his addiction, he was actually living on the streets of Nashville, his days little more than a series of drug scores. “I saw a lot of horrible stuff,” he reminisces. “I saw a lot of really tragic stuff happen. And I tried to keep it from happening to me, but I succumbed. It took me longer than it did some of my friends. It didn’t really get me until I really started making the money,” he says laughing. Then, turning serious, adds, “It wasn’t like I didn’t use drugs and I didn’t have a problem [before then], because I did. But by [that] time, I just preferred better drugs and more of them.” Indeed, were he never sentenced to a year in prison in 1994, Steve Earle might never have overcome his addictions, and he almost certainly wouldn’t have experienced the rebirth of his career.

The other thing you probably know about Steve Earle is that he really irritates the hell out of the right-wing, which is something of a badge of honor to him. It’s not that Earle has anything against people of a Republican bent per se. After all, as he readily clarifies, “I’m not a Democrat.” Turns out, in fact, he’s not very fond of those touted as saviors by the left-wing. But if hearing “lefty troubadour” Steve Earle proudly proclaim that he’s not a Democrat is shocking, he’s quick to clarify: “I’m a socialist in a country that doesn’t allow a socialist party.” Little surprise, then, that he’s very disturbed by the George W. Bush brand of conservatism, the kind that promises compassion while robbing the pocketbook of the working class.

On his last two albums, Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts… Now, Earle has made no secret of his disdain for Bush’s agenda, particularly the “War on Terrorism”, which, to Earle’s thinking, is not only perpetuating tensions between the US and the Middle East, but also the rest of the world. “We are the most reviled we’ve ever been,” he states, “and that’s saying something. And the things that’s heartbreaking about that is that people want to like us. They really want to pull for us and root for us. There’s only one place in the world that we went into this hated, and that was the Mideast. And that didn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Earle first caught the ire of the right-wing — in its most concentrated and vitriolic form — after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Barely a year later, he released Jerusalem, which contained the song “John Walker’s Blues” — John Walker being John Walker Lindh, the American kid who was found training with the Taliban after the US invaded Afghanistan. Earle made no attempt to defend Lindh in the song; rather, he tried to get into Lindh’s psyche and find what would prompt an American kid of privilege not only to leave his country, but to eventually conspire against it. The country was not ready to empathize with people like Lindh, however, and Earle was labeled a traitor.

Rather than backtracking or lying low, though, Earle took the Bush administration head on with 2004’s The Revolution Starts… Now. Songs like “Home to Houston” and “Rich Man’s War” chronicled the plight of soldiers forced to fight in Iraq for financial reasons, only to find that they can’t, as the saying goes, go back home. Other songs directly challenged Bush and his subordinates, such as “F the FCC” — which is self-explanatory — and “Condi, Condi”, a song that, quite sarcastically, praises the feminine charms of Ms. Condoleezza Rice. No, Steve Earle doesn’t approve of the current administration — or people of a like mind — and he’s not afraid to say so. “[The right-wing doesn’t] want an even playing field,” he states. “They don’t want everyone’s kids to go to college … They want their kids to go to college.”

That’s the story about Steve Earle that gets told time and again, the one about him having a troubled past and stirring controversy. It’s a story worth telling — one mythic in scope, tragedy, triumph, and improbability. That he survived his own self-destructive tendencies at all is miraculous, but that he also went on to release a string of critically-acclaimed albums that extends to the present? Forget it. Second chances rarely happen, and the second time around isn’t supposed to be as successful — or, in Earle’s case, more successful — as the first time around.

But this story, this version of the story, while grounded in fact, only presents Steve Earle as an archetype, not the complex and nuanced man he comes across as in conversation. Not long after Earle admits that he didn’t expect to live to see his fifth decade, he adds “Now I’m having to deal with, ‘Oh, I might actually be around for a while.'” That he is now, to his surprise, in his middle age — and also in the best health he’s been in for a long time — has caused him to reevaluate his life. Two other developments have also caused Earle to rethink his ways: his marriage to fellow singer/songwriter Allison Moorer and their move to, of all places, New York City. Both events have caused him to mellow out, and both have had a direct impact on his music, evidenced by his latest album, Washington Square Serenade.

Unlike its two predecessors, Washington Square Serenade is not what you would call a political album. This may come as a letdown to those who have come to regard Earle as a left-wing revolutionary, one of the few artists who actually speaks his mind before a cause becomes popular, but Earle is more focused on his marriage now than carrying any political torch. For him, there’s no artistic difference between singing about the debacle in Iraq or being in love. “I made The Revolution Starts… Now because I needed to make a statement that was more overtly political, and I really needed to do that as an artist, and this is the same thing. But my life has changed a lot. I got married.”

Indeed, instead of the political songs that Earle has become known for during the last decade, Washington Square Serenade features more than the standard amount of love songs. “Sparkle and Shine”, “Come Home to Me”, “Days Aren’t Long Enough” — it’s obvious that Earle has finally found a healthy, stable relationship. True, he has always been able to write a killer ballad, but now it’s obvious that his muse is no longer a mythical, far-off entity. Unlike a ballad like, say, Revolution‘s “I Think You Should Know” — in which the narrator tells his romantic interest to pick her clothes up off the ground and go home — these tracks are noticeably more tender, sincere, and thoughtful.

And if a Steve Earle album that is decidedly more restrained is odd in light of his recent material, it’s not the only difference that will evoke confusion. Washington Square Serenade was recorded without the backing of the Dukes, Earle’s band that he describes as “a really great, ridiculously loud, adult rock band”. “Really great” is an understatement, and those who have seen Earle and the Dukes live know that “ridiculously loud” is not an overstatement. But Earle didn’t forsake the Dukes for another band. Instead, he opted for something altogether different, something that many would never imagine him doing. “I tested positive for Pro Tools finally,” he jokes, no doubt aware that this decision will baffle many and alienate some. Most of the songs on Washington Square Serenade were written by Earle, then recorded onto a computer, where they gradually took shape and gained layers.

The surprises, however, don’t stop with a less political album recorded on Pro Tools. Earle also decided to enlist the help of producer John King, one of the Dust Brothers, who has worked with both Beck and the Beastie Boys — legends in their own right, but not artists you would associate with the Hardcore Troubadour. “Those are the records that made me sure that what I wanted to do could be done,” Earle explains. “It’s not that new a thing. It’s just a really organic element.” Typical of Earle, while he realized that albums recorded with the assistance of computers can sometimes sound somewhat artificial or spacey, he wasn’t detoured by doubt. “It can [go wrong], like here’s my ‘waka, waka, waka’ record, and I didn’t want it to be that. But I wasn’t scared of it. In some ways, I’m really proud of it because [I didn’t overdo it while] at first I thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t go far enough…'”

This statement should be reassuring to those who are, quite understandably, skeptical about the dramatic change in Earle’s modus operandi. While he describes Washington Square Serenade as “a folk album arrived at by hip-hop rules”, the truth is that it sounds like vintage Earle, just more intimate. There are drum loops and overdubs, but the only discernible difference is that some of the songs sound more rhythmic and propulsive. This is largely because Earle took the sampled elements and tweaked them to his liking, imposing his musicianship on top of the synthesized components. Describing the drum loop in “Tennessee Blues”, for example, he notes that he “retuned, slowed down, and really fucked [it] up” before using it in the song.

Earle doesn’t view his new approach so much as a break with his past, though, as he does a way of challenging himself as an artist. “I was always interested in what the technology can do. But what I knew how to do as a producer was get a bunch of guys that can play and stick some really good microphones in front of them and turn the tape recorder on. That was the safety zone for me, and I did that for a long time. I’m a good enough songwriter that I was able to make that interesting. But it was getting to the point where I needed to do something drastically different just to keep it interesting for me.”

But while Washington Square Serenade is very different from Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts… Now, it still tackles controversial issues, just in a less overt fashion. “City of Immigrants”, for example, subtly addresses the immigration debate by celebrating the diversity found in Earle’s new home of New York City. Earle recorded the track with the backing of Forro in the Dark, a neo-folk Brazilian band he saw playing outside of his hotel while staying in Austin for South By Southwest. “Living in a city of immigrants,” the song begins, “I don’t need to go traveling. / Open my door and the world walks in”. At one point not so long ago, Earle was so disillusioned by the current state of American politics and discourse that he considered leaving the country; his faith, however, was restored by the different cultures found in New York City.

This variety of cultures, he feels, is discouraged and exploited for gain, particularly by people like CNN personality Lou Dobbs, who has made immigration his signature issue and personal crusade — not to mention his cash cow. “He’s so fucking ugly, and he’s so fucking racist,” Earle exclaims. “This immigration thing is really ugly, it’s really dangerous, and guys like Lou Dobbs … he’s scary. He’s like Paul Harvey [in his ability to connect with common people]. People thought Paul Harvey was fucking Norman Rockwell or something. It seems innocuous and it snuck up on us and [Dobbs] is pushing all the right buttons — ‘You’re losing your jobs because these people are coming over illegally.’ That’s a lie in and of itself. He makes the pretense of standing up for regular people who are being fucked over by their government who are turning their backs on the flow of ‘illegals’ entering the country.”

If Earle, however, sounds overly critical of the conservative-minded, he’s equally exacting when it comes to liberals, finding little solace in the current crop of Democratic candidates. “Clinton and Obama,” he says, “I’m not impressed with. I think Clinton’s dangerous because I don’t think Bill Clinton was such a great thing the first time around. Whatever she does or whatever she aspires to herself, the reality is that people are going to vote for her just to get a third [Bill] Clinton term. And I read Obama’s book, and he sounds a lot like Bill Clinton to me, too.” When pressed to identify a candidate he likes, Earle replies “John Edwards looks the most real to me … I can be pretty pragmatic.”

These days, however, Earle is more focused on his home, not the overall state of affairs in the United States. Having struggled with addiction and self-destructive tendencies in general for so long, he’s no doubt aware that changing his life is an everyday commitment, the temptations never too far away. “This is the first time I’ve ever been married sober, and it’s a completely different experience. People made a lot about how many times I’ve been married, but I haven’t been married in a long time. I’m trying to make it work. I’ve changed the whole way that I live. Allison and I have spent the last two years trying to sync up our schedules so that we can tour together. That’s not a marketing decision — that’s trying to stay married. We spend more time together than probably any married couple that I know of. We tour together, we kind of do everything together, and we’re trying to keep it that way.”

Steve Earle, then, has consciously and purposefully added a new chapter to his own story, the one that is so far-fetched that it sounds, a little ironically, like a country song. Having lived through hell firsthand, he has now, at the rather mature age of 52, finally figured out that a long and quiet life is preferable to a short and chaotic one. Perhaps he knew it all along, but now he’s finally living a peaceful existence, able to leave the self-inflicted drama behind.

In “Tennessee Blues”, the first track on Washington Square Serenade, Earle finally reconciles with his past, symbolized by the narrator leaving Nashville for New York City after finding love. “Fare thee well / I’m bound to roam,” he says, “This ain’t ever been my home”. It’s something straight out of the final scene of John Ford’s The Searchers, the door finally closing on the ugly past, the troubled and angry hero of yesterday no longer so heroic. And while some may lament the Hardcore Troubadour trading trouble and controversy for stability and happiness, Steve Earle, as always, couldn’t care less. “Redhead by my side, boys,” he continues in “Tennessee Blues”, “Sweetest thing I’ve found / Goodbye guitar town…” Earle, indeed, is saying goodbye to many things these days, and he seems a much lighter man for doing so.

“I made a personal record,” he says, quietly. “It’s someone else’s turn.”

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