STEVE EARLE: The Last Hardcore Troubadour

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The day was dying all over the sky in messy streaks of pink and purple, bruises to mark the enveloping indigo. Heat lightning flashed on the horizon, but there was no threat of rain, just the oppressive humidity weighing what was left of the conscious hours down with a heaviness that made its presence known.

Sitting on a wraparound deck an hour southwest of Nashville, Steve Earle considers the house he’s lived in, raged in, raised a bunch of kids in, written songs in over the past two decades-and he looks out across the cow pastures nearby, crickets chirping and the sound of far-off cars drifting over the tree line.

steve earle

The day was dying all over the sky in messy streaks of pink and purple, bruises to mark the enveloping indigo. Heat lightning flashed on the horizon, but there was no threat of rain, just the oppressive humidity weighing what was left of the conscious hours down with a heaviness that made its presence known.

Sitting on a wraparound deck an hour southwest of Nashville, Steve Earle considers the house he’s lived in, raged in, raised a bunch of kids in, written songs in over the past two decades-and he looks out across the cow pastures nearby, crickets chirping and the sound of far-off cars drifting over the tree line.

“Do I think this was a nurturing place?” he asks, not of his home but of the city immortalized by its CB radio tag in the title of his breakout 1986 release Guitar Town. “No. Me and everybody like me…we have to take what we’re given. Songwriters, especially the kind of songwriter I came to be, have to live in the margin.”

Washington Square Serenade, Earle’s forthcoming album set for September 25 release, opens with “Tennessee Blues,” a song that basically watches Nashville, Tenn., recede in his rearview mirror. Like Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” there is no yearning or soft-focus looking back in tenderness; it is a quiet ballad of a man getting the hell out and good riddance.

“I’m not mad at anybody,” Earle reassures, believing in the accountability of his decisions. “But I’m done. No offense to anybody here, but I was able to live here 30 years because I wasn’t around very much. And it’s not the place I moved to to begin with.”

When Earle arrived in Nashville circa 1975, it was still a land of “us” and “them.” The writers were given keys so they could access the publishing buildings long after the staff had gone home. They were viewed with a mixture of amusement and reverence…allowed to follow their muse for the creative catalyzing they created for everyone around them.

“Back then, the business depended on bohemians,” Earle says with a wicked, but knowing laugh. “They needed Kristofferson and Roger Miller…let ‘em write ‘The Silver Tongued Devil & I’ if that’s what it takes to get ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night.’ It was the tail end of something…the last Tin Pan Alley. Heck, the last creative resource-and we were the night shift! They gave us all keys, because they knew the best songs weren’t written in daylight…and those buildings were so small, they didn’t have anywhere for us when the people were working.”

Earle pauses for a split second, then adds conspiratorially, alluding to (mis)adventures past, “We got our keys taken away several times…me and Guy [Clark].”

Pauses aren’t something Steve Earle takes a lot of. The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter with the hillbilly heavy metal heart is a turbo-charged creative force. He fell in and out of all kinds of publishing deals, spending nearly 10 years in Nashville before anyone would put a record out, but what a record it was. Once Guitar Town dropped in 1986 and gained traction, he only slowed down for the worst of his drug addiction-referred to as “my vacation in the ghetto”-when it came to writing, recording, and hitting the road.

Until now.

Washington Square Serenade comes nearly three years after TheRevolution Starts…Now, his second straight politically-oiled recording. Much has changed for the troubadour. He has moved to New York City, surrendered to the realities of technology, fallen deeply into a different kind of love with critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated singer/songwriter, Allison Moorer, and made the decision to let someone else speak out-while he turns his attention and his songs to his own world.

Whether it’s the raw, yet ardent ache of “Come Home To Me,” the jaggedly dogged “Oxycontin Blues,” the ragged, churning life-as-gospel “Jericho Road” or the chunky folk of “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” the intensity remains. But there is an intimacy interwoven, and ironically, an organic reality being conjured. It’s not what one would expect from a record from the Big Apple, produced by Dust Brother John King and, most shockingly, created largely on a computer.

None of it is lost on Earle, who shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“It’s true,” he concedes. “I’ve tested positive for the first time for ProTools.” He’s quick to explain that there is also no more analog tape being manufactured anywhere in the world-“and [Steve] Albini swears he has half of it”-and acknowledges that being off the road disrupted his normal pre-production process of write, road test and record. But the challenge of departing the standard operating procedure also opened some portals of creativity through the sheer newness of it all. It also reinforced the notion that he was out to do something very different.

“With the last record, I was trying to get it out before the election and have some kind of impact,” he explains of what was driving The Revolution Starts… Now. “And it was a very loud record…not something to change the status quo…Republicans wouldn’t be listening to that record, but [it served to] to get people thinking, talking, realizing what was going on.

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