Steve Earle: Experimenting with 8 crayons
Steve Earle’s new album Terraplane is largely Texas blues but it still has plenty of twang to it as Earle and the Dukes draw from country and bluegrass. Influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Canned Heat and Billy Gibbons, Earle recorded 11 original tracks in Nashville. There’s a bit of everything on the record, including Texas roadhouse blues (“Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” acoustic country blues (“Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”) and Chicago blues (“The Usual Time”). An actor who’s had roles in HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” Earle is currently in the film The World Made Straight and can be seen in the upcoming Dixieland. His long-awaited memoir I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye will be published by Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group this year. He phoned us from Boise to talk about the album and the tour.
You did some solo stuff for a period but recently brought the band back together. What prompted that decision?
It’s just the records. The band was never not together. I just made two records in a row that the band wasn’t on. They didn’t have anything to do with the band. One was Washington Square Serenade which was arrived at through hip-hop and I toured to support that with a DJ. The record after that was the Townes record and I decided it was best to tour solo for that. The next record I made with T-Bone. It was recorded with his band. It was more pieces and I needed a band to play live. I brought the band back and expanded the band. We went on from there to record The Low Highway and then this record, minus Allison, of course.
Talk about the new album. What prompted you to want to pay tribute to Texas blues?
I don’t know if I’m paying tribute to anything. There’s only two kinds of shuffles. There’s a Chicago shuffle and a Texas shuffle. There’s not an L.A. shuffle or a New York shuffle. The bar is high if you come from where I come from. The blues has always been a component of what I do and I just wanted to concentrate on it, just like I made a bluegrass record. Bluegrass has always influenced what I do. I’m a big bluegrass fan. It’s the same with the blues. I write a lot of different kinds of songs. It’s like working with a 32 color box of crayons for a long time and then limiting yourself to eight. Sometimes limiting yourself to certain parameters can make you work harder and dig deeper.
The album was recorded in Nashville by Ray Kennedy and produced by R.S. Field. What was the recording experience like?
The studio was a shotgun shack that has been picked up and moved from Memphis to Nashville. It’s the Studio D there. I like the room. Ray Kennedy had worked there and he and R.S. Field both suggested it. I still have a house there so I can stay there for free. It’s hard for me to make a record cheaper than I can make it Nashville. If I fly my whole band to New York, I’ve automatically got a way more expensive record.
On “The Tennessee Kid,” you almost sound possessed. What were you going for with those vocals?
All the vocals on the record are live. The deal is that it’s the second time I’ve done this. It’s a spoken word piece in iambic pentameter. I’m fascinated with it because I didn’t understand it until relatively late. I went to the ninth grade twice but I didn’t finish it either time. I’ve always been interested in theater. William Shakespeare is one of the authors that I’ve read every word attributed to him although my personal opinion is that Edward De Vere wrote the stuff that’s attributed to Shakespeare. I got to the blues by way of ZZ Top and Canned Heat because I was in Texas and I was the age that I was. Everybody else did too. It was younger white musicians rediscovering this stuff that caused us to rediscover Muddy Waters and B.B. King. They had careers that they probably never would have never had if the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t happened and pop music hadn’t become a form of art and people become interested in it as a sociological statement. All of a sudden, the blues becomes important to it. It’s also a component of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe the most important component of rock ’n’ roll. The first concert I ever saw was the Beatles when I was 10. The second concert was Canned Heat. I wanted something that was in that interpretation of John Lee Hooker with a psychedelic edge. Musically, I knew I was going to do a boogie of some sort. I’ve done it before. I had a boogie on The Hard Way. There’s a song called West Nashville Boogie. A lot of people see it as “La Grange” and I don’t. I see it as [John Lee Hooker’s] “Boom Boom.” I wanted to do it with a psychedelic twist. The legend of the crossroads is important. The whole point of this record is that it was [blues singer-guitarist] Son House who said that Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil. That’s the first person who ever said that and he was jealous. The truth is that Robert Johnson wasn’t important because he played guitar better than everyone else. Several guitar players were as good as he was. Skip James was arguably as good. Son House was at least in the ballpark. What made Robert Johnson special was the songs. There are no songs he borrowed from.
Did you improvise on it?
No, no, no. It’s a carefully written piece. I read it off a piece of paper but I did it live. It’s me playing guitar and singing at the same time live. There are no vocals overdubs on the record. The only overdubs are Chris Masterson’s guitar solos.
One of my favorite songs is “Go Go Boots are Back.” Talk about what you were going for sonically with that tune?
The first two ZZ Top records.
Do you listen to much contemporary blues?
I do. I know all the guys. The moment of truth comes in three days because I just got an email from Charlie Musslewhite saying he was looking forward to seeing the show. I know Jimmie Vaughan. I know Billly Gibbons. If anybody doesn’t think Billy Gibbons is a bluesman, they’re not paying attention. I know all the modern practitioners. The moment of truth is coming. I’m going to run into all of them at one point or another this summer.
I think you started playing guitar when you were 11. What made you want to play guitar and what then inspired you to start writing songs?
My uncle was five years older than me and gave me my first Beatles records. I worshipped him. My first guitar was his guitar, which I started playing upside down because he was left-handed. When I figured that out and turned it back around, things started progressing much faster.
Did you start writing songs then?
I started writing songs when I was 13 or 14 but most of them had girls’ names in the titles.
At what point did you know you had turned the corner as a songwriter?
When I got to Nashville and was sitting in a room with Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Neil Young on a fairly regular basis in the middle of the night with a guitar going around the room. They played their songs and they listened while I played my new songs. I decided I was really a songwriter. I was 19.
Do you get nostalgic for that time? Sounds like it was a great time to be a songwriter in Nashville.
It was a great time to be in Nashville but it didn’t last that long. I wish I was in New York City right now after this Supreme Court decision. I live in Greenwich Village and I’m sure it’s going off right there and I’m missing it. I’m a little jealous of that. I’m okay with being where I am at this point in life. I’m way okay with being in New York.
You’re playing two nights when you’re in Cleveland. Will you have two drastically different sets?
It’ll be pretty similar. We have a really good show that I’m really proud of. I haven’t even changed the set one iota since the first four days of the tour. I made one adjustment and haven’t made one since. It’s a great show.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Kansas City, MO – Knuckleheads
Omaha, NE – The Waiting Room
Saint Louis, MO – Old Rock House
Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club
Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club
Buffalo, NY – Iron Works
Rutland, VT – The Paramount Theater
Cavendish, Canada – Cavendish Beach Festival
Brownfield, ME – Stone Mountain Arts Center
Greenfield, MA – The Green River Festival
Boston, MA – Wilbur Theatre
Portsmouth, NH – Prescott Park Arts Festival
Ridgefield, CT – The Ridgefield Playhouse
Trumansburg, NY – Trumansburg Fairgrounds
Big Indian, NY – Camp Copperhead
New Glasgow, Canada – New Glasgow Riverfront Jubilee
Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live