Steve Earle Sees The Light

“I went through drafts right up until I recorded every single one of them, whereas my tendency before was to decide they were finished, and then I was concentrating on something else. Because I was also being a producer, and at some point I had to plan making the record…. ”

The fruit of all those extra revisions can be heard in “Lonely Are The Free.” As a song or a piece of poetry it stands on its own, marked by both its imagery and its economy. Earle laced together entire verses of the song in subtle rhyme.

It’s no small thing for him to completely hand over the production duties – even to someone as qualified as Burnett. After all, Earle’s used to being in control in the studio. He produced his last album in his New York apartment, and co-produced a bunch of them before that with his Twangtrust partner Ray Kennedy in Nashville. Besides Baez, he’s served as producer for acts ranging from his wife, Moorer, to Ron Sexsmith, to under-the-radar alt-country band the V-Roys to Lucinda Williams. Years ago, he even produced a band Justin formed with two other sons of big-time songwriters, Dustin Welch and Travis Nicholson.

“This was the first one where I really let it go,” Earle says, including even 2007’s Washington Square Serenade – officially produced by Dust Brother John King – in that sweeping statement. “I’ve acted as a producer even when I wasn’t the producer. Like Washington Square Serenade, I put a lot of the beats together myself; about a third of ‘em I put together myself in the demo stage on my Pro-Tools rig in the apartment before John King got involved, and even after John was involved.”

So, then, why should a proven veteran want to relinquish control?

Burnett, the 2002 Grammy winner for Producer of the Year, has a philosophy on the subject: “My view is that we all need a producer. We all need a record-maker in the studio, somebody to take care of that part of it.

“You don’t do the sound live for yourself when you’re playing live. It’s always good to have the observer. And hard to be our own observer. So I think it’s a great relief. It allows the performer, the composer to concentrate on his composition and the singer to concentrate on his singing, and not to worry what the bass drum sounds like.”

And a great relief it was. Earle didn’t worry about the bass drum sounds, or the ways that Burnett’s methods and audio standards differed from his own. “I mean, he mixed more times than I normally mix and he mastered three times before he was happy with it,” he notes with mock amazement. “I’ve never mastered a record twice in my life. I completely turned it over to him and everything he did made it sound better than the time before.”

“The thing I was most happy about,” Burnett weighs in, “is he didn’t feel any need to make it perfect. Perfection is a second-rate idea. He just wanted to get the story told in the most powerful way. He does a lot of growling. He does all this stuff that’s just part of him getting the story out. And a lot of people would want to clean it all up … Steve wasn’t interested in any of that.”

There’s growling during “Little Emperor,” all right – guttural verbalizations filling gaps between phrases in Earle’s hungry, wolfish vocal performance. And he and Moorer thought nothing of cutting their enflamed desert country rock duet “Heaven Or Hell” with a young guest in the vocal booth. “She had John Henry around her waist,” Burnett reports.

 

Paradoxical as it might seem, by loosening his grip on certain aspects of the album-making process, the unfailingly independent-minded Earle has found new freedom as a singer and a songwriter. Besides music-making, fiction writing, playwriting, acting, deejaying, parenting and partnering, he’s pursuing the art of letting go.

As for the songs – which are still at the heart of things for Earle – some have taken on lives of their own.

“People have taught my songs in college courses. One of my songs [“Pilgrim”] has become sort of a standard that’s played at funerals all the time …“The Galway Girl” is sung at virtually every wedding in Ireland now. And it’s also Galway City football team’s song … It’s the stuff that you do that [makes you think] maybe you’re going to leave something behind when you’re gone.”

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