On his new album, Steve Earle sings about America's downtrodden with a folksinger's passion.
You never know what you're going to get with a new Steve Earle record. Sure, you can count on solid tunes and heartfelt performances. But, production-wise, Earle has never been one to play his cards the same way twice. 2007's Washington Square Serenade featured Earle and his guitar backed by programmed drums. His prior release, Townes, was an all-acoustic tribute to mentor Townes Van Zandt. Then came I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive in 2010, which featured a full band tracked live and a bit of sonic candy in the mixes-thanks to producer T Bone Burnett.
Earle's latest record is The Low Highway, coproduced by Earle with longtime friend and collaborator Ray Kennedy. As on III Never Get Out of This World Alive, Earle has surrounded himself with a team of great players-essentially, his touring band. However, The Low Highway is drier and grittier than its predecessor. The sound suits these songs well, as Earle explores themes of poverty, disenfranchisement, and other personal struggles. "Invisible," for example, is written as a first-person account of homelessness. On "21st Century Blues," Earle bemoans "Hard times in the new millennium / Getting by on just the bare minimum" and declares that this modern world "ain't the future that Kennedy promised me."
Earle himself is not exactly living on the edge. In addition to his career as a recording artist, he is also an actor-he had recurring roles on The Wire and Treme-and an author. But touring extensively as he does, he has been across the States and back many times over, and he knows that lots of folks aren't living the American dream quite the way they dreamt. Observing the troubles in his own country became the genesis of The Low Highway. While still on the road for I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Earle was writing songs for Treme, demoing them, and sending the songs to the show's producers. As he watched what was going on outside the tourbus windows, two things occurred to Earle. "Number one," he says, "I was writing my next record. And, second, I was writing firsthand about the same things that Woody Guthrie was writing about. I'm a post-Bob Dylan songwriter. All of us-including Bob- emulate music that comes from the Depression. We sing about the Depression, but none of us witnessed it for ourselves. Until now."
There's some irony to finding himself living in an America that finally resembles the Depression-era world that Dylan and so many have sung about. Earle says his job-being a folksinger, that is-began as an accounting of the tenor of the times in America. "What I do," he says, "sort of became a job with Dylan, though the post-Dylan thing is kind of different. He was so good that he simultaneously raised it to an art form once and for all and took all the air out of the room at the same time. It's almost impossible for anybody to do it, because he was so good. I mean, he worked really hard at absorbing what he absorbed, but it came pretty naturally to him. I wrote 'Tom Ames' Prayer' when I was 19 and 'Ben McCulloch' when I was 20. But I also wrote a lot of other stuff that I don't remember. Bob-when he was 23 and 24 years old-was writing things like 'My Back Pages.' That's what we were left with. The rest of us operate in scorched earth that Dylan left behind. It's been that way as long as I've been doing it, so it doesn't bother me. I probably appreciate Bob more now than I ever did."
Just like that, our conversation this past February was off and running. The Texas native happened to be in Nashville at the time, where he and his wife, Allison Moorer, keep a house (though Earle spends as much time as possible in New York City). He is knowledgeable on many subjects-certainly on the history of American folk music-and opinionated. He also has a knack for taking the scenic route to the answers of questions put to him. It's a rare gift, and though he will absolutely get to the point, other things come to light along the way.
Why do you appreciate Dylan more nowadays?
EARLE I think I'm older and smarter. I appreciate Shakespeare more than I ever did. My first Bob record was Highway 61 Revisited, just because of my age, but I had a drama teacher that turned me on to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I was playing coffeehouses, you know, because I wasn't old enough to get into bars. I became kind of a folkie. The early Bob stuff was a real revelation for me. Then I met Townes, and everything sort of got pulled to this focus that was a little closer to home, in Texas. Then I moved to Nashville when I was 19, around '75.
What was Nashville like at that time?
EARLE That scene was so intense. I was in Austin from '72 to '74. Nashville was an extension of that, in a way, with the outlaw thing going on. I was playing bass for Guy Clark. I was in the studio when Dreaming My Dreams-the Waylon [Jennings] record-was being recorded. That's where I was in the middle of. I was in an insular atmosphere. It was good. I was really learning how to write songs at a period in time when the main thing that was raging outside was disco. So that was OK, to be insulated from that. 1 heard about Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, and then punk rock. It had to be stuff that was making a really big noise to filter through to me, because I was so focused on what was near at hand.
The scene was musically landlocked, it sounds like.
EARLE It was. Tennessee is the most landlocked state in the Union-did you know that? It borders more states than any other state in the Union. Look at it on a map. It borders seven. No other state borders seven states.
How much of the year do you spend there now?
EARLE Very little. I was kind of done with it eight years ago when I moved to New York. I'll never be able to live anyplace else. They're gonna carry me out of Washington Place feet first. I'm gonna die there. Or on the bus.
Speaking of the bus, there's a fair bit of travel in the lyrics on The Low Highway. There's "Down the Road, Pt. II" and the title song of course. What's the connection between this "Down the Road" and the "Down the Road" from your Guitar Town record?
EARLE Well, they exist for almost exactly the same reasons. I wrote "Down the Road" for Guitar Town to close that record. "Guitar Town" was the first thing I wrote, "Down the Road" was the last thing. Guitar Town was inspired by Born in the U.S.A. I went to see Bruce Springsteen at Murfreesboro at MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University]. He came out and he opened with "Born in the U.S.A." I decided that I would just write an album to be an album. That "Down the Road" was written to be the closing track. This "Down the Road" was written last for this album. I didn't end up putting it last, because "Remember Me" just seemed like it needed to be last. But it was written last.
We were recording in Nashville and I hadn't played mandolin on anything yet. I had this really great new Gilchrist mandolin. I already had one Gilchrist mandolin, and I got another one that was even better than my first one. I got fascinated with the way it sounded. I wanted to play mandolin, and I wanted something that the band could play a little bit on. I'd been in Nashville for about ten days getting ready for the record, making the record, and 1 was really sick of being here. That's what the song itself ended up being about.
"Love's Gonna Blow My Way" strikes me as coming from the Tin Pan Alley sort of style-the confluence of jazz and show tunes in the late 1930s. I'm wondering if you listen to jazz from that era.
EARLE The original idea was some kind of Gypsy thing for Lucia Micarelli to play fiddle on-something that was vaguely in that Stephane Grappelli kind of thing. For me, that means Stephane Grappelli and Stefan Grossman, 'cause I connect all that stuff from my generation. The song was written for Treme. The part that Lucia wrote is the cadenza in the middle. Eleanor Whitmore plays it on the record, but Lucia wrote it. Lucia has learned to improvise. When we started Treme, she didn't improvise at all. She learned to do it playing with me, and the Red Stick Ramblers, and other people she's had to play with. Her background is really hardcore classical, and then she was the concertmaster of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. She toured with Jethro Hill as a concertmaster. She's kind of a badass. Have you heard the version of "One More Cup of Coffee" that she and 1 did for Chimes of Freedom-the Dylan Amnesty thing? It's really good. I wanted to come up with something else for her to play that kind of fiddle on. Only a tiny part of it ended up getting used in the show. It was after my character's killed and she finds the charts in my apartment, including that song. She plays a little piece of it in the show.
"After Mardi Gras" and "That All You Got?" are also New Orleans-themed songs. Were those also songs you wrote for the show?
EARLE Yeah. "After Mardi Gras" is Lucia and me as well. The lyrics are all mine. The melody in the verse is hers. It was written for Lucia to sing and she does sing it in the second season. I just had to record it myself. I really like that song. I wanna hear Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] record that song.
Tell me about "Warren Hellman's Banjo." Did you actually inherit his banjo?
EARLE No. I wish I had. [Hellman, the driving force behind San Francisco's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival] had an original 1920s Whyte Laydie. He had a lot of banjos, but his Whyte Laydie I would love to have. I think his grandson has it. The song was basically written for Warren's memorial service. I finished it on the plane flying out there, and sang it for the first time at Warren's memorial service.
"Remember Me" is such a beautiful love song.
EARLE It's a love song, but it's a love song the way "Little Rock 'n' Roller" is a love song. It was written for my son. Basically, I was doing the math one day and realized I'm gonna do really good if I see him through high school. I have several friends I grew up with, four of us that came through high school together. Everybody's gone but me. You know, I'm not that old, but-"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would've taken better care of myself," as they say. I could end up not seeing him grow up, and he could end up not remembering me. So I just decided I'd better write it.
What are you playing on that-mandocello?
EARLE Yes. I'll probably just play it in a different register on a bouzouki or octave mandolin on tour, because I don't have a mandocello. That's an old Gibson K2-the round-hole, Astyle version of the mandocello. It belongs to Ray Kennedy. He doesn't have as many guitars as me, but his electric collection would blow your mind. He's got an absolutely original Nocaster that he paid $1,100 for. He's got a killer '56 Les Paul Special TV He's got a '61 SGshape Les Paul. He's got a '55 Strat. A lot of nice stuff.
Did you play a bunch of his guitars on the record?
EARLE I played mostly my own stuff on the record. I'd had no interest in playing electric guitar for several years. In the last couple of years, I bought two things. I bought at '55 Les Paul Custom-with an Alnico in the front and a P-90 in the back. That's my Les Paul, the one I always wanted. It's in perfect shape. It was a lot of money. I thought it had to have been refinished, but it's not. It's absolutely original. The gold plate is still on the pole pieces on the pickups. It's in absolutely pristine condition and it sounds like a million bucks. It's the best electric guitar that I've ever had.
I was born in 1955, so I collect 1955 guitars. I've got several '55 Gibsons and several '55 Martins. I got a '55 Tele that's absolutely intact. It's not in as good a shape as the Les Paul, but nothing's corroded. It's all original, and weightless-really, really light.
Do you take that stuff on the road?
EARLE No, on the road I play two M-21s-my signature M-21 Martins. The M-size is a 0000size guitar. It's a great in-between size guitar. It does everything I need it to do. I've been going back and forth between acoustic and electric. I play these two Epiphone Casino reissues. I got a blond one and a sunburst one when they first came out, and they're great guitars. To make a Casino work for me, I have to have a special nut put on it to spread the strings out a little bit more. An ES-330 would be better. I've got a couple of nice ES-330s. Those are kind of my thing-hollowbody guitars with P-90s.
I've also been playing three James TVussart guitars. I'm kind of a hardcore collector. I'm usually into Gibsons, Fenders, and Martins, and Gretsches and Rickenbackers, to some extent. But I've got three Trussarts. I've got a Deville, they call it, which is the Les Paul Special thing. I've got the Tele-mine's got the humbucker in the front. I've also got a Steelmaster, which is a wood-body guitar. He makes them both with alder or pine, with a steel top. It's a Jazzmaster configuration- mine has three pickups.
"Pocket Full of Rain" has no guitar at all. Is that you on piano?
EARLE I'm playing piano. It's another New Orleans song, in the sense that I hung out in New Orleans long enough that I thought I could play piano-thought I had to try. It makes you want to play piano, hanging out in New Orleans.
I played around with the piano when I lived at home with my parents. I left home when I was 16, so before that I played, you know, "Hey Jude" and "When the Morning Comes," and other stuff that I could pick out on piano. But you can't hitchhike with them. Once I left home, my piano playing was over. I never played one again. Never touched one, never tried-until I was in Nashville, already recording songs for the record. I woke up one morning and wrote that song on this Wurlitzer spinet piano here.
What guitar did you play on "Love's Gonna Blow My Way"?
EARLE I'm playing a Gilchrist archtop guitar. You know who Steve Gilchrist is? He makes the best mandolins in the world. I've got a D'Aquisto now, but my Gilchrist is better than my D'Aquisto-and I love the D'Aquisto. I'm glad I got it. It's one of the last guitars D'Aquisto built. It was built for Matt Umanov. They knew each other real well. It's a New Yorker. When he was already building the Blue Guitar, it was a special order. 17-inch New Yorker. Only Jimmy built 17-inch New Yorkers. The old man's New Yorkers were 18inch by definition, as far as I know. I never saw a 17-inch one.
I've got a Gilchrist mandolin and a guitar in the same finish. It's based on an L-10, the simplest archtop that Gibson ever built. It's maple, with a mahogany top. He normally builds them with a cutaway, but mine was built without a cutaway. It's a 16-inch, no cutaway. It's like a plain, plain, plain L-5. That's what an L-10 is. That's what this is based on. That's me, playing that guitar, with a thumbpick.
The Fred Kelly "bumblebee"?
EARLE Yeah. That's all I use anymore. The only two people I know who use them exclusively are me and Jackson Smith-Patti's son. I live in terror of Fred Kelly dying. You know what, man? If anything happens to him, I think I'm going to go and try to buy the machine and make those things myself, 'cause I won't be able to play.
That would be a wild turn of events.
EARLE I never wanted to do anything like that, but I'm planning on playing for a while. I just now learned how to play guitar, kind of, in the last few years.
WHAT HE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITARS: "On this record," Earle says, "I used a 1939 Martin D-18 and a firstyear Gibson L-00 (far right), which I guess is '32.1 used that on two songs." He also played a D'Aquisto New Yorker archtop for "Love's Gonna Blow My Way."
OTHER INSTRUMENTS: Gilchrist mandolin ("Down the Road, Pt. II"), Gibson K2 mandocello borrowed from The Low Highway coproducer Ray Kennedy ("Remember Me").
AMPLIFICATION. Fishman transducers with external Aura imaging system pedals. "The images," Earle says, "are stock Aura images from the website."
STRINGS: D'Addario phosphor-bronze ? 16 (.012-.053) on all his acoustics, "Except for a couple of modern Martin dreadnoughts that I use on the bluegrass gigs. Those get the heavier EJ17's (.013-.056)," he says.
PICK Fred Kelly "bumblebee" thumbpick.
"I'm planning on playing fora while. I just now learned how to play guitar, kind of, in the last few years.
ADAM LEVY is an itinerant guitarist and performing songwriter based in Los Angeles, California. Read more of his writings and hear his music at adamlevy.com.
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