Since his memorable debut in 1986 with Guitar Town, Steve Earle's musical career has included country, rock, folk, bluegrass, blues and a duet album last year with Shawn Colvin. He's also written books, been an outspoken advocate for progressive causes and appeared in highly regarded TV shows from The Wire to Treme. It was a pair of songs he wrote for TV's Nashville, though, that led him to country on his 2017 album, So you Wannabe an Outlaw. That and thinking about Waylon Jennings, who died in 2002 at the age of 64.
Earle's been in the news lately for gossipy items. Divorced from his sixth wife, Allison Moorer, whom he famously said went off with a "younger, skinnier, less talented singer-songwriter," Earle then appeared at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic where that songwriter, Hayes Carll, was also booked. Carll debuted a new song interpreted as being about Earle ("I think she left you because you wouldn't shut your mouth" was its lyric), while Earle for his part was content just to mow the crowd down with the latest version of his band, the Dukes, which he says is his best ever.
He also collaborates with Nelson, Miranda Lambert and Johnny Bush on the new album, his first for Warners since El Corazon 20 years ago. Earle, 62, spoke from the tour bus while awaiting sound check at the Dallas House of Blues a few days after that picnic in question.
Earle: It's the band that's on the record. It's a band I've had. The bass player Kelley Looney has been with me since Copperhead Road in 1988. Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, who are the guitar player and the fiddle player, who are married and also make records of their own as The Mastersons, have been in the band eight years this year.
We did change drummers two-thirds of the way through the tour, just before we went to Australia on the [2015 album] Terraplane cycle. That's Brad Pemberton, the newish drummer who played on this record. He's from Nashville. He was in the Cardinals, Ryan Adams' band, for 10 years.
And then we needed steel guitar for this record. With the songs I was writing I knew that was something I needed to do. At first I thought, "Well, I'll just bring in a ringer and find a kid somewhere," but before we were scheduled to record, I was talking to Charlie Sexton, and he told me about this kid who lived in Austin, which is where we actually recorded the record. His name is Ricky Ray Jackson, he's from Dallas originally. Chris and Eleanor had used him by happenstance on their record, and they recommended him too. So I called him and asked him if he wanted to do the record and this tour and be in the band, and that rounded it out.
It's the best band I ever had. We kind of peeled the paint off the wall at the Fourth of July picnic the other day - it was really good. We did the first full show in Houston two nights ago and we're playing a gig there and heading East. I'm really proud of the band, and it's exactly the band that you hear on the new record.
Songfacts: So your idea with the new record was to get back to little more country?
Earle: A lot more country. On purpose. Everything I do is pretty country, because I talk like this. I wasn't aiming at a specific thing. It happened by accident.
I made a blues record and I made a record with Shawn Colvin, and those songs were kind of written simultaneously - a lot of overlap between writing those two albums. The bluesy songs went into one pile, the harmony kind of songs went in another pile to finish with Shawn.
Meanwhile, T Bone Burnett called me. He was the musical director of Nashville, the TV show, the first season. I hadn't ever seen it - still haven't seen it - but he sent me a script and he said, "I need a song. This character's brother is getting out of prison, and he's going to have a song, and it's supposed to be a pretty good song that he wrote while he was in jail." And for some reason he thought I was qualified to do that. He knows I can write a song to order, so it's not really just a jail thing. Because I'd done it for Treme, and he had been involved in some of that stuff. So he called me and I wrote "If Mama Coulda Seen Me."
And then I sort of forgot about those two songs, finished the Colvin & Earle record and started touring. Halfway through that tour there was a day when I woke up and went, "Oh, I'm going to have to make a new record in a few months, I better start writing." So I looked to see what I had in the way of fragments, the way I always do, and realized I had these two complete songs on the desktop of my computer. I listened to them both and I realized they really hung together. And I thought, What is going on?
I realized I'd been listening to [Waylon Jennings' 1973 album] Honky Tonk Heroes again, for about a year. You know, there's always a Beatles, a Stones, a Waylon, a Willie and a Bob Dylan that I'm listening to at any given time. Not that there aren't a lot of great records by all those artists, but there are about two Waylon records, three Willie records, really only a couple Beatles records that I listen to over and over again, and a couple of Stones records. And I was on a Honky Tonk Heroes thing. I thought maybe with these two songs, that's what this record should be.
You know, I hear the term Outlaw thrown around a lot, and there's a lot of misconceptions of what that thing was about. What some people refer to as Outlaw Country, it was about artistic freedom. That's all it was ever about.
Country singers always got fucked up. George Jones wasn't going to go to the liquor store on a lawn mower at 3:30 in the morning. There aren't any liquor stores open at 3:30 in the morning in Tennessee, or anywhere else besides New Orleans and Las Vegas. He was just going someplace else to get something else.
They were called outlaws because they wanted to make records the way they wanted. They discovered that rock had that artistic freedom that they didn't have. Or at least perceived that they did, and that's what that was all about.
Songfacts: Sounds like this set of songs came easily to you.
Earle: I write, man. I just think writers write. I write something all the time. I'm writing a book for a musical, and I'm going to have to start writing songs for a new record at some point too. And I'm working on a song with one of my students who came to Camp Copperhead, which was so beautiful, and the lyrics are so gorgeous, I went to help her corral her melody. So I'm trying to help her with that on the internet.
I just write. I try to wake up in the morning and make something out of thin air. It's my job.
Songfacts: Was there a time when it didn't come easy for you?
Earle: The only time it never came easy to me was the four-and-a-half years I didn't write anything because I was trying to run down $500 to $1,000 worth of drugs every day. Between 1992 and late 1994, I didn't write anything.
Jennings went on toward such #1 hits as "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and a string of six solo albums that went gold. When he joined forces with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter for 1976's Wanted! The Outlaws, it became the first country music album to go Platinum.
Earle: He recorded it twice. "The Devil's Right Hand." He did it on his own and then he contributed it to a Highwaymen session, and the Highwaymen recorded it as well.
Songfacts: Did you know him pretty well?
Earle: Yeah, I knew him well. I wear a bandana on my right wrist. It's just an '80s throwback sweatband thing, and it became my mojo. When I was locked up, Waylon sent me a picture, back when there were still pictures and not just stuff on your phone. The envelope had the picture in it and on the back he said, "I'm wearing the bandana for you." I turned it over and he was wearing a bright yellow bandana on his right wrist.
Songfacts: You got Willie to sing along on your title track.
Earle: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I wrote the second verse of "Outlaw" for Willie. I'd hoped I could get him to do it. It was the first week of December and I knew he'd be in Maui by the time we recorded this, and the last couple of years I've been going Maui. I went originally to meet [spiritual teacher and author] Ram Dass the first time I went, which was three years ago, and I'd never been to Hawaii at all before.
Kris Kristofferson lives there part of the time. Willie's there in the winter. Ram Dass, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson — what's better than that? So I started going every Christmas. [My son] John Henry and I are going to leave Christmas Day this year.
His highest charting single was a version of Marty Robbins' "You Gave Me a Mountain" but the most performed song he ever wrote was the one that was his first single for RCA, "Whiskey River." To this day it opens every Willie Nelson concert.
After some throat ailments in the late 1970s, Bush lost his recording contract and was off the scene for a while before he began making a comeback a decade later. On his most recent album, released in June, he collaborated with Dale Watson and Reckless Kelly.
Earle: That's a big deal. He's still down there, chugging away. He's only a year and a half younger than Willie. You know, he and Willie were in Ray Price's band together and Bush was in Willie's first band, the Record Men. He was one of my local heroes. And he wrote "Whiskey River." He wrote the song Willie opens every single show with.
It was a big deal. He came in and he sang on the track when we cut it. He lives in San Antonio. A childhood friend of mine, somebody I've known since I was 12, is now the guitar player for the last 10 years or so in Bush's band, so I got to visit with him, too. He drove John up for the sessions.
And John, see, the way we met was a little rough. When I finally met him I was 19 - it was the year before I moved to Nashville. I was playing a club in San Antonio that was really just a restaurant, and there was a guy named Joe Vorhees, who was a piano player in Bush's band and also played really good five-string banjo. He would come and sit in with me. We were just having fun, playing a lot of songs one night, and we got a little high. We weren't in any shape to drive quite yet and we were hungry. We were trying to think of the nearest place open that was the least-risky place to get to without ending up in jail or being killed. He realized, "Hey, I got the keys to Bush's condo."
So we went to Bush's condo. He said he thought Bush was in Vegas. So we got there, and we raided the icebox. I got a bowl of Rice Krispies, and I don't know what Joe was eating, but I'm looking over at him and all of a sudden he goes completely white, and says "John!" I turned around, and here's Johnny Bush in a bathrobe with a .357 magnum pointed at the back of my head.
When Bush's book came out a few years ago, he inscribed my copy of it. It says, "To Steve, I sure am glad I didn't pull the trigger. John."
Songfacts: Do you think your album will make a ripple in Nashville or on country radio?
Earle: I don't know. I'm not going to get played on country radio. I'm too old. If I was a girl I think I might be able to get away with some of these songs on country radio, because all the good songs I hear on country radio, whenever I listen to it, are by girls for the most part. Chris Stapleton is pretty great. But the girls seem to have the real songs.
But I'm not going to be played on country radio, so I don't worry about that. And Nashville, all I can tell you about this record and Nashville is that I'm going to be playing the Ryman Auditorium on the 21st of this month and I'll let you know what happens.
Earle was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, but supported Hillary Clinton's bid when he stepped down.
Earle: You're going to get one after this. The next one is going to be just as country as this one, but way more political.
I just didn't know this was going to happen. The songs were written by November 9. I supported Bernie Sanders to the end, but I went on stage that night expecting, well, this wasn't going to be that bad. We were going to get the first woman president of the United States. We got off stage and realized that we had elected the first orangoutang president. You can carry diversity too far, I'm sorry. But damn.
I just stuck with the songs that this record was about musically. And it's pretty personal, the record. It was sort of about me, which I do every once in a while.
This record is a look back, but it's also the future. It's sort of like the players coming up from the farm system to the Yankees this year. Whatever happens this season, you're seeing the future of the ball club, and that's kind of the way I feel about this record. For the foreseeable future, which could be the rest of my life - I'm fucking 62 years old - I've got the best country-rock band in America.
So the next record is going to be just as country as this one, and way more political. You can count on it. It will be interesting. I'll be traveling around the country. If I listen as much as I talk, that could be really interesting.
Songfacts: Is it fun to play your old songs with this band as well?
Earle: Yeah. We had settled into a kind of ridiculously loud, really good four-piece adult rock band for several years. When Chris Masterson came along, Chris and Eleanor came as a package and she played fiddle, and it was basically the record I made with T Bone, which was done with the studio players that he uses.
And all of a sudden, what I wanted to do with that record is make a record that sort of set the tone for the future where I could combine the bluegrass and acoustic with the rock stuff, and that put me back in the position where I could so songs. We're playing songs on this tour from older records. There are a few things that haven't played in years, because we can do it with this band. So that is exciting. It's fun.
Songfacts: There are favorites you have to play though, right?
Earle: Yeah. I gotta play "Copperhead Road," and I gotta play "The Galway Girl" and I gotta play "Guitar Town." And then there are other things. I actually have more than one song that people consider to be indespensible, which is pretty good.
It depends where I am in the world. "I Ain't Never Satisfied" was a big deal up in Canada. It was a hit there, so I had to play that song every night there. I play it some in the States, but it's a big deal up there. "The Devil's Right Hand" is kind of a big deal. I play it a lot. But I got 16 studio albums, man. It's hard to play everything. It gets harder and harder.
In the '80s we were all playing three-hour shows because we were all trying to keep up with Springsteen. I shouldn't be doing it, and my audience can't do it sometimes, some of the older members anyway, so we try to keep the show to two hours now, all in. But it gets tough putting together a setlist when you have 16 albums.
Songfacts: When you wrote things like "Copperhead Road," did you know you had something that would be a signature song?
Earle: Yeah. I did. That song I did. "Guitar Town," I didn't. I just thought I was writing a song that was going to open my tour and open my record, because I'd seen Springsteen come out and open the show with "Born in the U.S.A." on that tour. That's really when I started writing that album, the day after I saw that tour. But it had such a utilitarian reason to exist for me that I thought that was it. So I was shocked when they made it a single and shocked when it was a hit. But "Copperhead" I knew.
August 17, 2017.
The tour by Steve Earle & the Dukes continues in the US through September 23 before jumping to Canada. Info at steveearle.com/tour.
Photo 1: Ted Barron, facebook.com/SteveEarleMusic
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