Camping With Steve Earle: Learning the Craft in the Woods with the Legendary Troubadour

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Full Moon Photo: Michael Bloom 2014
photos by Michael Bloom

 

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The buildings on Full Moon Resort’s picturesque property, like any good folk song, have rich history. Many date back multiple decades to when New York’s Catskill Mountains were a bustling tourist mecca that attracted the urban masses from New York City, fed up with life in the concrete jungle. The area’s massive tourism industry largely died down long ago, but the quaint beauty of the area remains. It’s a quality that Camp Copperhead shares, as a typical schedule consists of three square meals, lectures on everything from iambic pentameter to musical history, and nights of performances from either Earle or the students in a round robin setting, each complete with insight and advice from Earle himself. What’s taught is catered to what the campers want; one particular afternoon, an improvised poetry workshop sprang up. It truly is a band camp, right down to the cozy accommodations, but it’s one that has a grown-up, folk quality.

“It’s amazing to be privy to Steve’s thoughts in such an intimate but still vulnerable and communal learning process,” explains Caroline Randall Williams, a hired teaching assistant at the camp who is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Mississippi. “To get to watch someone I admire in his own thinking and learning process is indescribable. Seeing Steve organically explore these different creative avenues I’m like, ‘Wow, thisis how these thoughts become lyrics that people listen to over and over again.’ It’s very rare you get to watch your heroes or people who move you in the midst of their creative process. The luxury of that is pretty captivating.”

Said Earle of his vision, “I treat the camp as a camp, not a course. I try to do it being aware that some of the people aren’t going to be professional songwriters just because they came to this camp. What makes it all possible is people who come because they’re interested in music. Some of them have never written a song in their lives, but most of them were at least trying at one point or another. There was a woman who started out as sort of the protégé of someone who was established and a big deal. She got sidetracked and didn’t write for the past 30 years. She came to the camp looking to get back into it.”

Despite the novice of some of the campers, Earle is the first one to admit it’s almost impossible to teach creativity. “I can’t make anybody a songwriter, I said that the first day,” he explains. “Especially if they have no talent whatsoever. This year, we had about eight or nine people who could really write songs, and even a couple who were shockingly good. And that’s a pretty good percentage out of the 115 campers, I think.”

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Back in the alpine house, Earle stands over his campers clutching a microphone hooked up to a booming PA system, and draws a relationship between Shakespearean language and songwriting, explaining how the two intermingle. In between, he goes on tangents about everything from the soliloquies of Henry V (pulling up his favorite interpretation on YouTube); touring in Italy (he enjoys going there despite a limited fanbase); and the splintering of the music industry in recent years, which Earle has a plethora of thoughts on.

“I don’t listen to country radio very much,” he says later. “I didn’t even when I was on it. The most creative time in the history of country radio was in the 1970s. I don’t expect it to be anything else but commercial.” That doesn’t mean Earle, who is a self-proclaimed “borderline-Marxist,” doesn’t enjoy more commercial artists now and then. “There are certain people who pop up who I think can write. Taylor Swift can write! She’s writing about her own experiences and the audience is connecting because those experiences happened to them. I didn’t really follow her until I saw her on the Grammys a few years ago. I watched her performance and thought, ‘Oh, fuck. Now I get it.’”

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As another lecture ends and a heavy rainstorm suddenly turns the bright sky into an ominous one, Randall Williams can’t help but think about the opportunity to learn from someone like Earle. “I feel such reverence for him, so I only imagine how that’s magnified for people who have never met him before,” she explains as campers lug guitar cases past the property’s towering pine trees and toward their next activity. “I didn’t know that (music camps) like this existed at all until I got involved, and now I think it’s the coolest thing in the world. When you care about your fans, have a strong sense of your craft, and you share that with people who are invested in you and who you’ve moved … it’s very special.”

Perhaps the reason why Earle is pondering the industry and is happy to share his thoughts with the campers in such an in-depth and intimate way is because of a memoir he’s working on for release next year. “It’s hard, because some days I get up and fucking do not want to write about me,” he says with a laugh. “The book is going to cover my whole life, and talk about everyone from my uncle who gave me my first guitar, to Townes (Van Zandt). Overall, it’s a book about recovery.” It could be the recovery aspect of Earle’s story that draws people to him, who is referring both to his addictions and a life of ups and downs. “Sure, hard things happen to me,” he explains. “But at the end of the day, I get to do something I really love and make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline-Marxist doing it.”

This article appears in our September/October 2014 issue. Buy it here or download it here. Or better yet, subscribe

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