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


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 The booze and drugs have long since been replaced by a steady diet of books and songs.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.”

In Conversation with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor

Me and Ketch
Ketch Secor is cool and collected when we are introduced. This is surprising since our interview takes place shortly after he led his band Old Crow Medicine Show in a scorching 30-minute set at Farm Aid 30. He wielded the fiddle with the skill of a champion fencer.

The Grammy-winning musician and I meet backstage. Settling in next to one another on a couch, across from the Imagine Dragons’ trailer, Secor is sporting Ray Bans and is diressed in a black Farm Aid t-shirt, jean jacket, and faded jeans. The sweat is still apparent on his forehead. He is mellow. He feels humbled that Willie Nelson included his band in the day’s festivities. We chat about “the archangel Gabriel,” a.k.a. Nelson, how it felt for Secor playing his first Farm Aid, the kinship he feels with fellow musicians at the annual benefit to support family farmers, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s journey from sidewalk buskers to Grand Ole Opry members.

On the day’s set …

We had a ball. It’s really cool being at Farm Aid. I really enjoyed putting it out there. They only give you 30 minutes, so you gotta pack it in. That guy, David Amram, he’s in On the Road, he introduced Bob Dylan to Allan Ginsberg, he was the understudy to Leonard Bernstein … he’s also so old that he calls Willie Nelson junior! Really a treat to make a new friend and share some music on the stage with him. It was our first time playing Farm Aid.

How did it come about?

Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. Heck, I’ll go anywhere Willie asks us to go! I’d go to Waterloo. [Waterloo, Ontario, Canada is the town, west of Toronto, from where I hail.]

On Steve Goodman’s influence and singing “City of New Orleans” at Farm Aid 30 …

Anytime that a musician’s life is cut short like that it makes his body of work that much more important. There is something about singing a song that evokes more than just the music. Steve [Goodman] is from Chicago. Steve is the Chicago folk scene of the late 1970s. It is a great opportunity to evoke him here, plus we had Mickey [Raphael]. Anytime you get that guy … Willie Nelson has recorded a version and I first heard Arlo Guthrie’s version – didn’t hear Steve’s until much later – to get Mickey on that is so cool. We worked it out towards the end of the Willie Nelson tour we were on last month, working on “City of New Orleans.” David Amram was not rehearsed, however; Mickey introduced us backstage.

What’s it like touring with Willie Nelson?

It’s kind of like standing on the stage next to the angel Gabriel. There is a deep spirituality that radiates out of him, out of his guitar, and out of him. Everything that is Willie Nelson has this spirit to it. I just want to bask in the light of this.

Looking back 15 years ago, is it hard to imagine how far you’ve come as a band, from playing the Grand Ole Opry to winning a Grammy for your last record and sharing the stage and touring with the legendary Nelson?

15 years ago I was standing outside of Willie Nelson’s bus, waiting for him to get off, to come say hello to the handful of fans that were there. I was probably higher than he was. I had my CD in my hand to give to him. It was our first record. He said he would listen to it. We got our picture made and we both had turquoise stones in our hats.

So it was fate then?

I had a feeling that I would see him again.

On Remedy (2014), winning a Grammy, and what’s next for Old Crow Medicine Show?

We are starting to write some new tunes and have just been thinking about Farm Aid for the last few days and here it is almost half-way over. It is such a particular thing. It’s like being invited to this family reunion and then you realize that you are related. You look around and you see your chin, and your eyes, and you know that you are kin.

So you feel a real kinship with not just the other artists, but the family farmers you’ve met today?

I feel a kinship with everybody here. I was a kid in 1985 [the year Farm Aid started] and it was something that my mom had me pay attention to. ‘They are doing something in Champagne, Illinois Ketch,’ she said. My mom voted for Walter Mondale the year before, so I knew that that made her different than anybody else. I didn’t know what was different about her, but she didn’t vote for Reagan.

Farm Aid Board Member Neil [Young] is very vocal about the family farmer issues; for him, part of the solution begins with pushing back against corporate America. What are your feelings on the Farm Aid cause and possible solutions? You said on stage, ‘Here we are Year 30, maybe we will solve this in Year 31?’ There has been progress, right?

I don’t know. There has been change, but is there ever really progress? Are those one in the same? Beats me. I also believe like Neil Young that a corporate hytocricy runs the show. It’s not true democracy. But, I don’t feel as a fiddle player that it’s my place to deal with those issues. I’m much more interested in making change on a community level. Talking to farmers here. I met this guy today on stage, Ben Burkett. Ben is a farmer from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I asked him, ‘Have you read E.O. Wilson’s book, The Longleaf Pine, and he said, ‘Yes Sir and I’ve just plowed up 40 acres to do something about it.’

I come from the place that just might have the chance to save agriculture in North America. I wouldn’t ask Nebraska to lead the pack or Kansas or the Dakotas wherever the black soil is. Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the factories? Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the foreign markets? I live in the fertile American South and this is the place that can grow food. My state could grow food instead of California – you can grow food all year along in Tennessee, but we don’t. We grow corn like everywhere else. We grow whatever the market says is the thing to grow because of subsidies. I’m interested in helping to plow a new row in my home state.

For the rest of the day, I plan to enjoy the music, hang out, do some more press and share some fellowship with my fellow musicians. There’s Holly Williams [Secor points to the songwriter who brushes by us]. We talked about her grandfather, she’s great, she’s got a little baby. We were just talking about her grandfather’s museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where we just played. It’s a great opportunity to visit with other artists. We are all giving our time here. We are giving up our weekend to come together because we believe in Willie Nelson. Willie is the reason. We are all here because of our love and our respect for Willie Nelson. He is the great teacher. He taught us all, from Red Headed Stranger on down, what American songs can be about. You know, in all of them, they are about us.

Do you have a favorite Willie song?

“Still Is Still Moving to Me.” I would like to see that one turned into a flowchart. I would like to see the fractal version of “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”

Are you on the road again after Farm Aid?

We will play the Opry this fall, but touring is a little patchy at this time of year. We did our thing, it was great and fruitful. They call this, ‘laying by time.’ The reason that school starts so early in the south is because you had to hoe and chop because if you didn’t the cotton wouldn’t grow. We go to school August 8. It’s ridiculous. It’s 105 degrees out and kids wait for the school bus. These kids haven’t been in a field in three generations and these kids won’t go into a field and that field has a coming soon sign depicting a gas station with dozens of pumps and a grocery store with 6,000 parking spots.

And they call that progress?

Yeah, so 30 years of Farm Aid. Now, that said, I can walk a block from my house and buy goat cheese made two counties over wrapped in prosciutto that is cured in Tennessee. Then you go to the grocery store and everything is from California. The Canadian marketplace for food I find very progressive by comparison to the U.S. Because of the short growing cycle there is intensive agriculture. A grocery store in Quebec is amazing how much produce is grown there hydroponically. We eat Quebec tomatoes in Tennessee. They grow a bunch of damn tomatoes in Quebec!

Final thoughts, on No Depression.

I was glad to hear that No Depression is back on the shelves. It’s a good brand and was all through the 1990s. When we landed on the cover of it around 2003 or so, that was the only magazine that was ever going to put us on the cover and one of the very few that ever has.

A Kinship for the Land and the Music: Farm Aid 30 Kicks Ass in the Windy City

SEPTEMBER 21, 2015
First Bank Pavillion, Northerly Island, Chicago, Illinois

Some came from New York, some from Las Vegas. Others traveled from rural America, where family farmers struggle most. No matter where they followed the white line from, all came to Farm Aid 30 for the same two reasons: the music and the cause. Each did their part, to make a difference, whether it was buying from the homegrown concession stands or learning from the farmers and advocates in the Homegrown Village. For the more than 26,000 strong who attended the sold-out 30th anniversary edition of this annual music marathon, it was worth the trip alone to hear rising rock stars (Insects vs. Aliens), descendants of country legends (Holly Williams), musical icons (Mavis Staples, Neil Young), and Grammy-winners like Old Crow Medicine Show all washed down with good organic food and craft beer.

Willie Nelson, or “the archangel Gabriel” as Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor called him during our interview, is the reason artists give up their time and money to play this annual benefit. Everyone believes in the Tao of Willie and the deep spirituality that radiates from his soul. By the time country music’s elder statesman — and original outlaw — closed the day’s festivities with his treasured songbook, many had already drank their fill and were filing to the exits. Still, Nelson and his family band kept playing on by the light of the crescent moon, to their unique rhythms. There’s no doubt, it’s Willie’s day. The perma-smile on his weathered face — not only there because of the Willie’s Reserve he was most likely smoking on his bus throughout the day — says it all.

The artists respect Nelson, and for good reason. Jack Johnson even premiered a satirical song, written about the Farm Aid founder, about getting stoned with the legendary musician and “Willie taking all [my] money.” The octogenerarian still is filled with passion for playing and for the plight of the family farmer. Wearing a black Farm Aid T-shirt, Nelson summed up the cause at the morning press conference with these well-chosen words:

When we started Farm Aid, a crisis was gripping farm country. Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then, and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.

While Mother Nature sent a deluge of rain to the Chicago area the previous couple of days, thankfully the sun shone this past Saturday for the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid. At the presser before noon, Neil Young spewed his usual vitriol against corporate America, specifically calling out the government and large multinationals such as Monsanto.

We are up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere and it’s centred in our government and it’s backed up by multi-national corporations that are taking over the farm land of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.

Some of Young’s faithful followers were spotted wandering the lawn later in the day wearing t-shirts that read: “F*#@ Monsanto.” Not surprisingly, Young’s late evening set featured several tunes from his latest record, critiquing these same companies and their practies. Old Black — Neil’s longtime companion (Black Gibson SJ) — was the conductor that had his latest garage rock band of followers, the Promise of the Real, led by Nelsons’ eldest son Lucas. The young band was trying to keep pace with this old man, who still rocks out with the best of them.

Holly Williams, granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams, is carving out a fine career; she made the most of her early set. An ode to the white line, the title track “Highway” from her most recent release, was one of the highs. So was “Waiting on June,” a touching tribute to her grandparents’ love.

Old Crow Medicine Show paid their own tribute a wee bit later with a nod to Chicagoan and late, great songwriter Steve Goodman, with a spirited take on his classic “City of New Orleans.” The band was joined by Willie’s longtime harp player Mickey Raphael. OCMS lead singer/fiddler Secor, told me it just felt right to play this song. Hitting the stage shortly before 3 p.m., these members of the Grand Ole Opry brought a hoedown to Chicago’s lakefront with their seven-part harmony and foot-stompin’ music. Other highlights included “Wagon Wheel” and “I Hear Them All,” the latter which Dave Rawlings Machine recorded for their 2009 debut. Asked how OCMS ended up at Farm Aid, Secor told me, “Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. I’d go anywhere Willie asked me to go!”

Later, Imagine Dragons brought the rock to this homegrown hoedown. The Las Vegas band — and Farm Aid first-timer — opened with “It’s Time.” Lead singer Dan Reynolds jumped next to me in the photo pit and then hopped the barrier and sang a verse or two while running down the aisles, before returning to the stage.

Other highlights included Kacey Musgraves sporting a powder blue, sequined dress, and backed by an all-male band who were dressed in pink nudie suits. They delivered a kick-ass cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Another highlight was Mavis Staples’ gospel/blues revue set. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds gave an acoustic guitar clinic, while fellow Farm Aid Board Member John Mellencamp rolled out many of his hits, including the apropos “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Many of the artists also made themselves available to the fans. Jamey Johnson signed autographs and posed for selfies in the FarmYard Stage tent while Lucas Nelson peformed on the main stage. The ex-Marine even signed a female fans’ bicep with a sharpie.

As the sun set over Lake Michigan on this September night, Farm Aid proved yet again — 30 years on — that the cause is still strong. Farmers still struggle, and there is always need for more change at a grassroots and government level. Willie and his followers remain friends to the family farmer. That alone is cause for celebration.

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