STEVE EARLE: The Last Hardcore Troubadour

“We played CBGBs the night of the election. It was three nights in New York-the Bowery Ballroom, Webster Hall and CBGBs-and the next day, we got on a plane and went to Europe. But what I found about that record was that it became a recover room for people who’d worked on the campaign-who’d been part of it and couldn’t believe what had happened.”

Videos by American Songwriter

Always highly political, Earle never meant to be harsh. He just felt-as an American-the need to be heard. Factoring in his love for really being heard, Revolution and 2002’s Jerusalem were also fairly literal sonic blasts. He may’ve been Townes Van Zandt’s running buddy, Guy Clark’s compadre and recorded The Mountainwith Del McCoury, but in his heart of hearts, Steve Earle lives to rock.

He laughs when you bring that up, acknowledges that he started playing “stand up rock clubs” because of the quality of the sound systems, then tells a story that shows what anyone paying attention already knows.

“I had a girlfriend I met through activism, and I was touring with a bluegrass band at the time. So we moved in together, and then I got back with my normal band-and she had no idea. She was like ‘Why do you play so loud?'” he begins, winding up for the big close. “And I told her, ‘Because it makes my dick hard.’ And it does.

“But I realized…we were way too loud for my audience, probably for way too long. And you know, what I did wasn’t strident. It was accessible, but we were so loud. Maybe it was stuff people didn’t want to bear, though the feedback was good. I just…”

Steve Earle has never been one for explaining himself; he’ll explain it to you-that’s different, but not in a way that reeks of justification. Like Van Zandt, getting the songs and music is its own reason.

“This time I was writing for me,” he finally offers. “This is a real, real personal record. My politics haven’t changed. I’m no less committed. But somebody else can step into the breach, because I think I’ve earned the right to do a record that’s just for me.”

It’s not defensive or apologetic, but a statement of fact. Just like the fact that he lives on the same street where the cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was shot. Just like the fact that his mind never stops; his body is rarely still.

That urgent restlessness is what drives a great deal of the creative fire. Though he might not label it as such, he is willing to admit that he has standards-and those are not negotiable. Indeed, in today’s DIY world, those standards are in many ways being undermined, but they’re also putting the power in the hands of the people. It’s the same thing that makes New York City such an electric place for the Houston, Texas-raised son of an air traffic controller.

“Steve is an intellectual,” says Earle’s manager Danny Goldberg. “He likes the theatre. He’s passionate about folk music and its legacy. He’s a liberal. He’s been a lifelong Yankees fan…and he can really be himself in full here without thinking about genres…or anything else.”

Goldberg ought to know. He’s run both the Mercury and Atlantic Records. He created Modern Records for Stevie Nicks in the ‘80s and credibility hub Artemis Records at the brink of the 21st Century. He has managed Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt (among others), been the publicist for Led Zeppelin and Kiss and was one of the founders of liberal talk radio network Air America.

“And look at the neighborhood where he lives,” continues Goldberg, who lives a few blocks away in New York City’s storied Greenwich Village. “Billie Holiday sang to the first integrated audiences there. Allen Ginsburg lived there. Thomas Paine died there. And it was a hotbed of folk music, which is something that Steve knows a lot about.”


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

MERGE RECORDS: One Step at a Time