Steve Earle: Chasing the Blues From Texas to Tennessee to NYC

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From rabble-rouser to Shakespeare scholar, hard rocker to bluegrass brother, Steve Earle’s resume also includes self-taught songwriter, award-winning musician, actor (on such critically acclaimed shows as The Wire and Treme), author, broadcaster, and voracious reader. Not bad for an eighth-grade dropout.

Of course, Earle today is a far cry from that Lone Star State kid of yesteryear. His collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, was published in June 2002; his novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, was published in the spring of 2011; and he’s busy working on his memoir (I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye) as we speak. But that’s just the span of Earle’s literary career, His 1986 debut album, Guitar Town, had an 8-track among its release formats. That alone speaks to his longevity in an often fickle industry. In the past three decades, he’s lived a fuller life than most. He did a 60-day stint in prison for drug and weapons possession and he’s been divorced seven times (his latest split, from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, came last year). Somehow he’s managed to come out the other side alive.

Inside Earle’s heart and mind are demons galore; his experiences as an addict and the living blues of a hardcore troubadour life still find their way into his storied songs. Where once he enjoyed carousing and a carefree, often reckless, self-destructive existence, he now prefers silence, solitude, routine, and structure. The booze and drugs have long since been replaced by a steady diet of books and songs. The blues bleed one’s troubles and tribulations; they are etched into the grooves of the vinyl, one tragicomedy at a time. So, a blues record is a perfect soundtrack to Earle’s life in music.

Thirty years into his career, Earle, 60, comes full circle on his latest album, the bluesy Terraplane, released last month by New West. The follow-up to 2013’s The Low Highway, it features Earle’s longtime band The Dukes, comprised of Kelly Looney, Will Rigby, Chris Masterson, and Eleanor Whitmore (the latter two have their own band, The Mastersons). R.S. Field (Buddy Guy, John Mayall) produced the record, and it was engineered by Earle’s longtime production partner Ray Kennedy. The disc was recorded at House of Blues Studio D in Nashville.

With this record, Earle returns to the music that first tugged at his soul. Some fans were surprised when the three-time Grammy winner known for his politically charged folk and alt-country songs released this bluesy offering for his 16th studio album. For Earle, however, it was a natural progression on his musical journey, a return to his Texas roots and early influences. After all, the blues are really just another form of folk music.

In the liner notes to Terraplane, Earle writes: “… the blues are anything but superficial. In fact, they run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around everyday with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart (apologies to Tony Kushner). For my part, I’ve only ever believed two things about the blues: one, that they are very democratic, the commonest of human experience, perhaps that only thing that we all truly share and two, that one day, when it was time, I would make this record.”

“It’s easy to get your head around,” Earle explains over the phone, when I ask him about artists’ attraction to the blues. “It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to play. And, it becomes infectious. There is something about the blues that is universal. It’s like iambic pentameter, it always works.”

Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle, who released his own blues album, Absent Fathers, this year, explains the genre’s importance in even more detail: “Out of all the music that was made in the Southeastern United States, which is 90 percent of American music, it was the most influential,” he says. “It influenced so many types of music. You wouldn’t have rock and roll without the blues, you wouldn’t have Hank Williams without the blues … he didn’t invent the 12-bar blues, but he played it all the goddamn time. You wouldn’t have jazz without the blues. It’s the number-one most vital part of our heritage here in America, as far as our musical heritage is concerned.”

Named after the late, great songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whom his father befriended and saw as an early mentor, Justin only coincidentally returned to the blues at the same time as his pops. “It was a complete coincidence … 100 percent,” says the younger Earle. “We talk, but we often miss things. Sometimes we only really connect every few months because we are both working our asses off, but we then skip big parts of our lives [that we forget] to tell each other.

“I don’t think my father and I would necessarily notice that we were writing a blues record [at the same time] because I didn’t necessarily set out to write a blues record,” he continues. “I was trying to return to something more simple, along the lines of Yuma. There is a real thing where Townes [said,] ‘there is blues even in ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ It’s just a natural thing to come out of us. I think the last couple of years my dad has been experimenting a lot. I’m definitely glad he has fallen back into what he does best.”

While releasing a blues record at the same time was a fluke, what’s not random is that the same Texas blues legends who influenced the elder Earle are the ones who were a part of Justin’s early education.

“My father introduced me to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, and when I started playing music originally it was as a blues player,” he says. “I’m just going back to where I started … back to the roots of me being a musician.”

Where father and son differ, the younger Earle says, is in the sound he was most interested in capturing on Absent Fathers, as opposed to what Steve did on Terraplane. “There will always be this thing where I go for the sweeter, smoother side, where [my dad] wants to get as dirty as he can,” he explains. “He will call me and say, ‘listen to this tone I got, isn’t it insane?’ We have our similarities for sure, but we usually go in different directions when it comes to the end result.”

Despite their differences, both musical and personal, the younger Earle characterizes the current father-son relationship as pretty good. “We haven’t had a bad relationship since I was a teenager,” he says. “Anybody who claims they are at peace with everything that happened to them when they were a child is full of shit! Every parent fucks their kid up in some way, a little bit, that’s just the way it is. We will have very heated battles because we are both very passionate people and we will argue about music all day.” That said, Justin left open the possibility for a future collaboration between the talented songwriters. “Maybe,” he says simply. But, “it would be a battle.”

Even though the pair may not join forces in the studio anytime soon, the son always carries with him his father’s simple songwriting advice. It’s impossible, he says, to be the son of a musician and not be influenced by your father.

“Any songwriter who is a kid of a songwriter that says otherwise is full of shit. How is that possible? My father told me some very important things. I didn’t listen to him early on, especially because he was a reasonably new person in my life. But I’ve always remembered a couple of things he told me about writing songs right before I left home on my own when I was about 15. He told me, ‘Never write about anything that you don’t know.’ That’s a very simple thing to say, and, [when] you say it to people, they think, ‘What’s the big deal?’, but that has meaning. If you don’t understand that, then don’t write songs.”

Keep On Movin’ On
Speaking of sticking to what you know, Steve Earle turned to a stereotypical folk tradition for writing the songs of Terraplane. Riding the rails while backpacking through Europe alone with just a guitar, ukulele, and a notebook inspired the bulk of the disc’s tunes. “Trains have a beat to them,” Earle says to explain why so much music in so many genres has been inspired by – or written on – locomotives. “Trains have all kinds of rhythms and none of them are wrong,” he says. “You can write anything on a train.” This solo journey harkens to the old hobo tradition espoused by songwriting greats like Woody Guthrie. Continuing with the transportation theme, a terraplane is a Hudson automobile that was made in the 1930s, famous for being affordable and fast. Gangsters liked them. And, of course, there’s a Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues.” While this famous Johnson song didn’t end up on Terraplane, the Dukes recorded a version of it that will be released as a split single for Record Store Day 2015 with Earle’s version on one side and Johnson’s on the other. “It looks like a 78, but plays like a 45,” says Earle.

Earle and I connect near the tail end of two weeks of solid press interviews that included stops on all the late-night talk shows. I can hear the fatigue in his voice. He sighs as his management connects the call. Earle may be weary, but he’s wiser than most. The beard he sports these days makes him look like a sage. Gandalf the Grey, if you will. A new record, a memoir in the works, and plans for some work on Broadway … oh, and don’t forget the most important job to him these days: being a father to his 5-year-old son, John Henry. Asked about trying to balance the life as a touring musician with being a father who is present in his son’s life, Earle says it’s always been hard. “It bothers me more now, but the balance is easier. I still have to go on the road and it’s a drag.” Earle regrets not being there as much for his grown son, Justin, whose Absent Fathers speaks to this parental void. Despite such an arduous life journey, on the verge of his seventh decade, Earle shows no signs of slowing down.

Flash back to 1986, when this life in songs began. Like a Texas tornado, Earle took the Nashville establishment by storm with his rockabilly full-length debut, Guitar Town. The disc topped Billboard’s country album charts, and the title song reached No. 7 on the country singles charts. Earle was also nominated for two 1987 Grammy Awards for the release: Best Male Country Vocalist and Best Country Song, for the title track. No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock peeled back the layers that made up this young Earle a decade later, in Issue 3 from 1996, in a piece titled “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” Nearly two decades since Earle graced the cover of ND in print, he keeps showing music critics and fans alike you still can’t muzzle his muse. Never one to shy away from spouting opinions and waxing political, Terraplane finds Earle leaning more on the personal side of life. “This is more personal because there is nothing overtly political on there,” says Earle, “so I’m concentrating more on that stuff. … I had a lot going on in my personal life.” When I prompt him for more on the matter, on whether the blues matched his mood, he says simply: “That’s probably true.”

Growing up in Houston, Earle was exposed to the pair of blues legends Justin cited: Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. “I saw them both in the same room at the same time several times,” the elder Earle recalls. “That’s always been more a part of what I do … the acoustic side, because (of) Lightnin’s acoustic phase and Mance always played acoustic, but the electric stuff was a little more intimidating.”

While the electric blues was more foreign to a teenaged Earle, it still found its way into his musical education. He saw Freddy King and ZZ Top a lot. And, when he was 13, he was in a blues band. “We played Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield songs, along with Muddy Waters, since Electric Mud was just out,” Earle says. “Muddy Waters was just being introduced to a largely white, largely hippie audience and the blues became a part of that renaissance in roots music that became the mainstream of the music business for a moment.”

Enough has been written about the influence and mentorship of fellow Texan songwriting legends Van Zandt and Guy Clark on Earle’s education. You might think they are not related to the blues, but again, that’s not the case. Clark is how Earle got to see Lipscomb; the musicians spent a lot of time together at the bluesman’s house in Navasota. And Van Zandt knew Hopkins well and played his style of guitar better than anyone Earle has ever seen.

Besides the blues, the teenaged Earle listened to a steady diet of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. “I didn’t have an electric guitar when I was a kid, but I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and all that stuff, too,” Earle explains. “My guitar playing sounded more like some of the guitar on The Kinks’ records, some of the early Beatles and Stones records, as well as Bob Dylan.”

It’s hard to find a songwriter worth their salt that doesn’t reference Dylan as a touchstone. Even though Earle’s formal education ended before he entered high school, he was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers that were music lovers and left lasting impacts. “I had a drama teacher in high school that turned me on to Dylan records and gave me a copy of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” he says. “I had missed that stuff since I was only seven years old when it came out. The first Dylan record I really paid attention to on my own was Highway 61. By 10, my life was pretty much all about music, so from there I backtracked to other seminal records.”

A biology teacher who played in a local country band was also an early influence on Earle’s evolution as a songwriter by giving him the gift of books. Today, Earle is a voracious reader who sees books as an important part of his songwriting process. What is he reading?

“Pretty much everything I can get my hands on,” he says. “I read way more nonfiction than fiction these days just because I always feel guilty about not learning as much as I can since I have a Grade 8 education. I read some things over and over again. Lord of the Rings for years. Now I tend to read the Harry Potter books over and over again,” he laughs. “Other stuff I read more than once. I read Shakespeare constantly. I probably reread a Shakespeare play at least once a year. My favorites are Hamlet – it’s the ultimate tragedy of that age. As far as comedies go, probably Much Ado About Nothing. They did Shakespeare in the Park in Nashville a couple of years ago and someone was trying to be a snob about it and say, ‘it’s not that good,’ and I was like, ‘It’s fucking Shakespeare and it’s in the park!’ ”

Shakespeare’s influence is seen directly on Terraplane in the song, “The Tennessee Kid,” which masterfully blends The Bard with the blues. “It’s just a retelling of the crossroads legend,” Earle says. “Any blues record by me is going to be about Robert Johnson more than anyone else, as he’s definitely the greatest songwriter of the genre. He basically wrote all of the songs that the genre is based on.” To pull Shakespeare into it, he adds: “[That one is] in iambic pentameter.”

In preparation for making Terraplane, Earle also dug back into his personal treasure chest of old recordings. “There were three kinds of stuff we had in mind when we were recording and mixing this record. One, the Chess Records, especially Howlin’ Wolf. Besides that, Canned Heat, and the first two ZZ Top records.”

‘Fearless and Quick’: The Making of Terraplane
Chris Masterson, along with his wife Eleanor Whitmore, has been in Earle’s backing band, The Dukes, since 2010. Masterson’s been friends with Earle for 14 years; he also grew up in The Lone Star State and the blues runs deep in his blood.

“My dad had country and western records, but we would go see all these blues guys,” Masterson says. “When I started to really appreciate music, it all really starts there. Even though I’ve gone on and done different things, my playing has always been rooted in that.

“I met Johnny Winter when I was 8 years old,” Masterson recalls. “My parents would take me out to singer-songwriter gigs, blues gigs, and folk gigs. Growing up in Houston, you are immersed in that. There were clubs that have been around for decades. I would see guys like Albert Collins play and Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes play … the blues was all around and inescapable. My dad would take me to all these gigs and eventually I got to sit in with some of these people in my early teens.”

Masterson says these legendary musicians welcomed him and were happy to pass on some tips. “I would go to blues jams in the Fourth Ward and I was always welcomed on people’s stages,” he says. “It was an amazing way to learn. I was a strange kid, though, because I heard blues/rock – Stevie Vaughan or something – and then also started digging back and found Albert King and Freddy King. Later, I loved all the Charlie Christian records and even Pee Wee Crayton.”

Combine the fact that the guitarist/songwriter learned from some of the same blues masters as Earle with the tightness of The Dukes and it’s no surprise the songs on Terraplane came together quickly – it was recorded in just six days. Some of the songs were written over the course of a year, but two-thirds of it were written in a couple of months. The mixing was on top of that, but Earle doesn’t stay around for that anymore, leaving it in the capable hands of Ray Kennedy. A couple of things were kind of hammered out on sound checks at the end of the last tour such as the Texas shuffle that opens the disc, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby).” “When Steve started playing these tunes, I knew exactly what to do,” Masterson says. “When we first started going over these tunes in sound check, it took shape really quick.”

Masterson has already made several records with Earle and says that, with each subsequent record, he becomes more and more impressed with the bandleader’s efficiency. “He is always fearless and quick in the studio,” Masterson says. “That leads to really good art. He is also very decisive. He hears a thing he likes and we move on … no questions asked. I think this record was even faster than six days, as the last day he was just finishing up the duet with Eleanor. We already had everything else recorded and even recorded another song for another record down the road.”

Masterson says he’s learned a lot about record-making from spending time with Earle. “A lot of times when you go to make a record you have a big pile of songs together. Some things work better than others, and you decide to go with this song versus another song,” he explains. “Steve comes in with the 10 or 11 songs that are going to be the record. It goes to show how much he puts into it on the front end. … The last record we recorded in sequence. It’s a complete vision … a complete work before the record button is even hit. That is Steve. As a writer, to come in with what you want is amazing. I guess none of us get to see his cutting room floor, but it’s still very powerful to see it go down like that. …”

When and Where the Muse Hits
Earle’s journey to the blues has been a spiritual one, and the path has been formed by the roads he’s taken and the places he’s lived. It’s a well-worn highway with many highs and lows that eventually led him to New York City.

“I went from Texas to Tennessee when I was 19 and I stayed there 33 years, but I traveled to many other places from there,” he says. “I also spent a lot of time in Canada. I always loved New York and for a lot of reasons. Then, 10 years ago I felt like I needed another place to hang my hat and I came here; it’s felt more like home than anywhere else I’ve lived.” I ask whether he ever gets lost in the megalopolis. “People get lost, I guess, but it’s like the cave and the sleeping sharks, the oxygen comes to you,” he explains. “You can be still here and the whole world will still come to you.”

According to Earle, this stimulus is crucial to life as a songwriter. “There is always input. If there is no input, there’s no output.”

Speaking of output, this summer, Earle returns for a second year of his Camp Copperhead in upstate New York to teach aspiring songwriters his craft. The four-day immersion songwriting camp debuted last summer and immediately sold out. (At the time of this posting, there were still spots available for Camp Copperhead 2015, slated for July 20-24.)

“I teach songwriting the way that I do it,” Earle says. “I can’t make anybody a songwriter, but I can show you what I do and why. It’s about how I write and also about input. We do many exercises. We write haiku and we read and listen to Shakespeare. I wrote ‘You’re the Best Lover That I’ve Ever Had’ [which appears on Terraplane] at Camp Copperhead last year. Everybody saw it every day, since I wrote it on the chalkboard, so they could see what the process is like.”

One wonders whether, as he’s aged and matured, Earle’s approach to songwriting has changed. “The writing process changes all the time,” he explains. “I’ve learned not to be married to any particular routine or process. Trust in whatever it takes. The one thing is that as you get older, you get busier. I now have a 5-year-old, so I can’t say, ‘Oh, I write in the morning,’ as I don’t always have that luxury. I write when I have the time. When the muse hits these days, I use my phone to record the idea.”

Of course, what matters more than how the songs come to him is the fact that they continue to come. So far into his career as a songwriter, Earle has tackled just about everything from folk to bluegrass to country, and his ability to nail the blues is evident on Terraplane. It may seem like a new destination, but Earle’s journey to the blues was more like a journey home. Though he’s confident in his craft and is careful to clarify that the blues has “always been a part of what I do,” he admits, as a songwriter from Texas, it was daunting to consider making a blues record. “I know Jimmie Vaughan,” he explains, “I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I know Kim Wilson. Outside of Texas, I know Charlie Musselwhite, for that matter … and I’m going to run into these guys. The bar is high, is what it boils down to. They will have to decide for themselves what they think of my record, but I’m pretty proud of it.”

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