With his black hat pulled low and a brown bandana covering his face, Steve Earle certainly looks the outlaw part as he makes his way across the Lokn’ Festival backstage area, toward the tour bus. The black hat, surprisingly, bears a New York Yankees logo, and the bandana, which covers a bushy beard streaked with gray, is an attempt to spare the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter from the thick festival dust that permeates the air outside.
Inside, Earle’s eyes are clear and bright, his mood predictably hyper-charged as he discusses a lengthy career that began when Earle rose to prominence with the genre-busting Guitar Town in 1986. That was followed by a string of largely acclaimed albums, leading up to this year’s Terraplane, his blues-focused 16th record. A nasty drug habit that landed him behind bars in 1993 almost ended his career — not to mention his life — but Earle has been remarkably prolific in the ensuing sober years, releasing a dozen records that have garnered him three Grammys, as well as penning books and a play. Earle’s outspoken, leftist politics and polarizing stances on controversial issues have no doubt cost him fans and, he believes, friends.
“Mississippi, It’s Time,” in which Earle addresses the Confederate flag controversy that was re-ignited in the wake of a South Carolina shooting, was released the day before this interview was conducted. About an hour before he’s scheduled to take the stage at Lokn’, Earle spoke with Billboard of music history, the levitation of Al Gore, the politics of Nashville’s Music Row, and why New York is where he feels safest.
As both an artist and interview subject, Earle is, as he describes himself, “a hard dog to keep under the porch,” a blazing intellect infused with a healthy streak of Texas stubbornness and a fierce dedication to social justice. He’s also a walking music encyclopedia, and remains one of the industry’s most visionary voices, 30 years after first turning Nashville on its ear.
Billboard: So it’s been a while since we’ve spoken — what have you been doing the last 20 years?
Steve Earle: Just making records. Wrote a couple books and a play. A little acting. Haven’t using any drugs in that time, and only been married once, and one divorce.
[Leon Russell, booked for a Mad Dogs and Englishmen tribute that night at Lokn’, appears outside the bus window, riding by on his scooter.]
Look, it’s Leon.
Oh, is he here? [Looks out of the window].Yeah, that’s his scooter, that’s how he gets around these days. [Laughs] He’s haulin’ ass. I saw the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in Dallas.
Let’s talk about Terraplane, your newest record.
It’s essentially a blues record, but I wanted to make a blues record, not just in the post-war sense. “Blues” is actually a technical term, and I don’t think most people understand that. The blues was invented by musicians that read music and wrote music, guys from Memphis and New Orleans. The fastest way to insult a New Orleans musician is to insinuate that he plays by ear, because that’s not what happens there. People learn to read and write music. High school bands are a lot of it, and that’s one thing that has really been struggling to survive since Katrina. The public schools down there basically died for several years, but it’s slowly starting to come back.
When we think of the blues now, we tend to think of the postwar Chicago thing. I’ve always been a student — and, to some degree a practitioner — of the Delta thing that preceded that, where the electric thing came from. That was these guys, nearly every one of them from Mississippi, that came to Chicago and plugged in, and it starts to change at that point. It also becomes jukebox music for the African American population that had moved to the Midwest looking for work — just like there was a white population, the whole “hillbilly highway” thing that my whole first record was based on. I wanted to cover all of that stuff, so there’s prewar stuff, stuff that’s more primitive Delta sound, and then Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
I was in a blues band when I was 13 years old, the only band I was really in the whole time I was coming up. Where I was on the south side of San Antonio, it was sort of polarized, the kids were pretty redneck and stuck in the ‘50s on that side of town. Then I moved to the north side of town, and the only guys I could find that weren’t playing country music were listening to blues. It was a good time, too, ’68, so you were hearing the very first Johnny Winter record, the Imperial record had just come out, [Muddy Waters’] Electric Mud was out. We were into Electric Flag, we were still listening to Paul Butterfield’s East-West, and we were listening to Canned Heat, and ZZ Top starts that year. Anybody that doesn’t think that Billy Gibbons is a blues man isn’t paying attention. He’s a monster. Billy, the way he plays, is basically Lightnin’ really loud. It’s very heavily based on Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Your version of the blues is filtered through a lot of different things, as I hear it on Terraplane.
I think it’s more that what I’ve always done is based on the blues, among other things. It’s the same reason I did a bluegrass record [The Mountain, with Del McCoury Band, in 1999]. When I moved to Nashville in 1974, I hung out with Guy Clark and that whole crowd, but I also hung out with a lot of bluegrass musicians. One of the reasons I don’t live in Nashville anymore, one of the reasons I started giving myself permission to move on, was John Hartford passed away [in 2001]. John Hartford was the center of my community in Nashville. Not so much bluegrass, though bluegrass was part of it, but John was the center of the hipster music in Nashville. I moved there in ’74, so I was two years behind him. We all hung out at the Station Inn — and I hate to say it, because I’m pretty anti-drug at this point in my life and have been for a long time — but the bluegrass musicians and the songwriters in my little circle, what we had in common was we all smoked pot, so we all knew each other.
How did you fall in with all these folks?
There was a salon that existed, a circle of songwriters, most of us from Texas, some of us from the Carolinas, and there were the bluegrass guys, and we had a connection. A lot of it was, we were all people who knew who Bob Dylan was. Newbury was the last pre-Dylan songwriter in Nashville that was important, but he was always pretty cool and pretty hip. He was Townes [Van Zandt’s] first publisher, he brought Townes to town. We were all connected to Mickey Newbury, including Kris [Kristofferson]. Newbury had a lot to do with Kris coming to town, as much as people make of it being Johnny Cash. Newbury was one of the people that knew about [Kristofferson] and encouraged him to move to Nashville and give it a shot.
Kris was the first post-Bob Dylan songwriter to come to town. He really was a folk singer, he was playing the Newport Folk Festival at the same time that Roger Miller’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” the first hit version of that song, was on the charts. I’m a post-Kristofferson songwriter in Nashville, but what we all have in common — me, Townes, Guy, Kris — is we’re all post-Dylan songwriters that happened to land in Nashville.
You know a lot of this history, by being part of it, but your knowledge very much precedes your own role in it. How did you learn all this stuff, pre-Internet?
Being a folk singer is being a musicologist. I came up in the coffeehouses, I had the Harry Smith anthology [Anthology of American Folk Music] on vinyl, and I had access to the whole set at the coffeehouse, you could go listen to it. Just like you could at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in New York City — he kept a copy, and every folkie in the Village in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s knew that anthology, chapter and verse. There is no rock ‘n roll as an art form as we know it without that anthology.
Rock ‘n roll becomes an art form at the moment when Bob Dylan wants to be John Lennon and John Lennon wants to be Bob Dylan. It’s the lyrics that elevated rock ‘n roll to an art form. Rock ‘n roll ends up being a loud form of pop music and staying that way if it hadn’t been for the lyrics being bumped up a level with Bob.
Which was spurred on by the British invasion and their interpretation of the blues.
Whenever I sang Beatles and Rolling Stones songs, I thought I was singing them with an English accent, I thought I sounded English when I sang ‘em. But I didn’t, I sounded like I sound. And, by the same token, those [British] guys thought they were doing a very authentic thing, but they were English and they had elements of English folk music in the way they played. The people that took it anywhere were the ones that didn’t try to put themselves in a box. They got some things that we didn’t get.
I don’t think Jimi Hendrix would have been able to get a record deal in the U.S., I don’t think anybody would have gotten it. Rock ‘n’ roll was still segregated and becoming more segregated by the second when Jimi Hendrix comes along, and Jimi Hendrix changes everything. But it took an English bass player turned manager [Chas Chandler] hearing him in Greenwich Village and taking him back to London to record for that to happen. All that stuff’s healthy, it’s all cross-pollination. I still sell more tickets per capita in the U.K. than I do anywhere else in the world.
You called yourself a folk singer, but you’re pretty hard to categorize. That’s where the Grammys [three for Best Contemporary Folk Album] are, though, right?
I’m OK with “folk singer.” Rock ‘n’ roll is folk music, and so is hip-hop. When a couple of kids get a piece of digital gear they don’t really understand, and throw the fucking manual away and just start pushing buttons, that’s the same thing as an NYU student with a banjo in 1957. It’s just doing it yourself, making music for yourself.
You were called country music’s savior with Guitar Town in 1986 — how do you view that album now?
There’s things I would do different on that record. For one thing, I sing way better now than I did then. Part of that’s emphysema, but I’m a better singer now. I’m not crazy about my vocals on that record. That digital recording, I recorded that way not because I loved it, but because it was a rule. [Then-MCA president] Jimmy Bowen owned three Mitsubishi digital recorders, and the rule was if you didn’t record on those, you didn’t record for MCA, because he got a kickback from Mitsubishi for using them. Then he charged you, you had to rent the machines from Bowen and record it in his studios, that was how he paid for that really expensive marijuana he smoked.
At that moment, I had a lot of doubts about myself, I’d been in town almost 13 years and I had lost confidence in myself as a songwriter. But then I saw Bruce Springsteen on the Born in the USA tour at MTSU, and I wrote “Guitar Town” about three days later, “Down the Road” four days after that, and I started writing an album to be an album, that’s where it came from. There’s things I would do different now; on this tour we’re doing a whole Guitar Town segment in the middle of the set. We pretty much always play “My Old Friend The Blues,” we do “Some Day” most of the time, we always play “Guitar Town.” Today’s a shortened set, so you won’t hear as much of it, I’m only playing an hour. We largely play the new record, and we’ve also got a single that’s just come out that we’ve got to pay attention to and get in the set, my first digital single, which is out today.
You would seem to fit the bill, but there was no “Americana” label per se when you came out.
I guess I don’t belong to Americana any more. I’ve never won an Americana award at all, I’ve only been nominated for two. The only thing I ever got was the Freedom of Speech award, but that’s given along with the First Amendment Center in Vanderbilt, and I knew [Nashville publisher/First Amendment advocate] John Seigenthaler really well, so that was Seigenthaler, it wasn’t the Americana Association. My old partner Jack Emerson was one of the founders, but the people that run it now, I think they think I’m too old to be Americana, I don’t know. [Laughs] Any organization like that, it’s more about how the people that work within the organization… whatever they have to do to keep collecting the salaries they collect, that’s how that works.
What’s your relationship with Nashville like these days?
I own a house in Fairview [Tenn.], I still make records there, I made the new record there. I’ve recorded two records in New York since I’ve lived there, everything else has been in Nashville. The Townes record  was mostly guitar and vocal things that I recorded in my living room on my ProTools rig in my little apartment on Jones Street, which I don’t live in anymore. We overdubbed the other stuff over there, and there’s a couple of tracks I did with a bluegrass band that we did record at Sound Emporium in Nashville, and Ray Kennedy still mixes pretty much every record I make. The T Bone record [I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, 2011] I made in L.A., it’s the only record I’ve ever made in L.A. As a producer, I always end up in Nashville because there’s just a pool of players there that I can’t match anywhere else. I produced Joan Baez’ last record [Day After Tomorrow, 2008] and I did it in Nashville. I work there a lot.
Do you feel like you’re part of any scene there now?
I don’t — the people I know there are the people I’ve always known. And people will say, “have you heard this or that?” whether it’s mainstream country or Americana, and I’m very, very behind. I’m writing a book, and I’m writing songs for a record Shawn Colvin and I are getting ready to make in Nashville, Buddy Miller’s going to produce it. It will be out in February or March, and that’s what I’ll be doing next summer, Shawn and I out touring together. Just a duo, just the two of us, no band. A financial pleasure.
After that, I’m gonna make a country record, and I’m gonna make it in Nashville. By “country record,” I mean the record I might have made if Bowen hadn’t pissed me off. Because Bowen did. The only time I impressed Bowen was when we were making Guitar Town. He came into the studio, kind of like a raid, to see what we were doing. He’s just holding court and running his mouth off, and I had this really, ridiculously strong Colombian pot that I’d gotten from somebody. So I lit a joint and it was going around, and Bowen’s holding forth about this or that, and the joint comes to him, and he bogarts it, because that’s what he does, and in the middle of a sentence he trails off, and he turns around and looks at me and says, “son!” That’s the only time I ever impressed him.
Hilarious. I thought you were going to say it was a lyric or something music-related.
No, no, no. That was it. He wanted me off the label. And then when we were getting ready to make Exit O, I got called into Bowen’s office, he got me in there with no manager or anybody, and said, “So, the first record did OK, you made a pretty good showing. Now we’ve got to get down to business. I’m glad you made a commitment to digital recording” — like I had a choice — “like Hank Jr. did.” And he said, “Now, I’m gonna start sending you some songs over, because you’re gonna be touring and won’t have time to write a record this time.” I guess he assumed those songs had been around for years, and I wrote those songs in eight months. I already had the second record written, I said, “no, I’ve got songs.” He didn’t know what to say to that. Finally, he leaned over and said, “I hear that you’ve got a dolly on the West Coast.”
Yeah, a girlfriend. I was married. He was letting me know that he knew something about me personally. It didn’t effect what I did artistically, but from that point on, just because he tried to muscle me, it was on at that point. I can’t say that Exit 0 wasn’t a little harder, and Copperhead Road wasn’t really harder because of that. And I had to go to Memphis to make Copperhead Road. Tony [Brown] is the producer of record on it, but he didn’t hang out very much. He wanted plausible denial if it didn’t turn out well. He would be there about half the time, most of the time it was me and Joe Hardy, the engineer. That record is my post-Vietnam record. That record exists for the same reason Platoon does, and a lot of other stuff. I was with [songwriter] Mark Germino at a [Nashville] Sounds game one night, and suddenly, because there were fireworks and they freaked him out a little bit, he started talking about Vietnam. I’d known him for 10 years, and he never had talked about Vietnam. He started talking about it, we all started talking about Vietnam in the 1980s It took 20 years.
Yeah, but you put a different stamp on it by melding it with the Southern gothic culture, moonshine and weed.
Which is why I have to put up with all those fuckin’ Lynyrd Skynyrd fans at my gigs from time to time, but it’s worth it.
I bet you don’t see a lot of rebel flags at your shows.
Yeah, we see ‘em every once in a while. We’ve got a new single that came out yesterday, it’s called “Mississippi, It’s Time,” and it’s about that fucking flag. All the proceeds go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and you can download it as of today. If you go back, you’ll find a couple of pictures of me with maybe a ball cap with a confederate flag and a skull on it or something. I knew what it was about, but I didn’t think about it all that much. It finally was a friend of mine, that happens to be black, just said, ‘do you know how offensive that is to me?’ I couldn’t argue with him about it, and I haven’t had one near me ever since.
You’re still touring a lot, how long do intend to keep staying out at this level?
I’m headed kinda towards Broadway. I’m developing [2007 album] Washington Square Serenade into a musical that I hope will end up on Broadway, and I’m hoping that eventually I won’t have to tour as much as I do now. I’ll still tour, and I have to tour a lot right now, because I have a little boy at a really expensive school, and I pay a lot of fucking alimony. And I live in New York. But it’s worth it for me to live there. The deal with Nashville is, I lived there a long time, I still have a house there, I still work there, but when I wrote “John Walker’s Blues” and got really involved in those presidential campaigns the two times that Bush ran, I felt like the community and some of my friends — especially when “John Walker’s Blues” happened — I felt like they bailed on me. I needed to be in a place where I didn’t feel like I was behind enemy lines.
Like your friends didn’t know your political views?
It wasn’t that, it wasn’t that they disagreed with me, they just didn’t want to stand too close to me and be associated with it, and it hurt my feelings. Al and Tipper Gore levitated one time. Remember those Music Row Democrats meetings? I was invited to some of those, I was already in New York by that time, but I was still officially a Tennessee resident. I voted for Obama the first time as a Tennessean. It was a trip to go to Franklin, Tenn., and vote for a black man for President of the United States. I called my manager and said, “I just voted for a black man for president of the United States in fucking Williamson County, Tennessee.”
But I went to an event at the Belcourt [in Nashville] where Al Gore was speaking, and this friend of mine, one of the guys that started Music Row Democrats, he grabbed me and tried to drag me up there to get my picture taken with Al and Tipper. They saw me coming and vanished out the fucking doors. They didn’t want their picture taken with me. And then my Dad got really sick the last few years of his life; he couldn’t get around, he’d come to New York and he couldn’t get around there, so he couldn’t come visit me there. My Dad really loved to travel, and I’m a guy that gets to see Paris every 18 or 19 months — that’s important to me. Major League Baseball and live theater are kind of important to me, too, so I like that about New York. But the main reason was that, if I got my wings clipped like my Dad did, did I want to be in Nashville, Tennessee, and the answer was “no.” If I lived in New York, then the world would come to me. And, I fish in Montana and New Zealand with a fly rod, I get to go to all kinds of cool places, I see plenty of trees. It’s the culture, and it’s also looking out my front door and seeing a mixed race, same sex couple holding hands… makes me feel safe at this point in our history.