STEVE EARLE: The Last Hardcore Troubadour

Indeed, he does. Earle can talk exhaustively about the antecedents of folk music. But it’s not a dusty, brittle Smithsonian type, archival discussion; it’s one filled with sparks and fire-even when he is talking about it from an academic perspective.

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“Those academics who were interested in Appalachian music…they went out and found Doc Boggs and Doc Watson,” he reports. “Peter K. Segal, John Cohen, Mike Seger…Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Center. All those folks were here. And then Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan were the guys in the neighborhood who started writing songs in the form…”

Always one to draw a larger perspective, he continues, widening his point. “Rock and roll would never have had any chance of becoming an art form without that era. Look at Freehold (New Jersey, the home of Bruce Springsteen); they call that area ‘Texas,’ because all these people from the South had come up there to work. It’s an accent you know the second you hear it.”

Recognizing the roots, expanding the traditions and making connections are all part of what makes Steve Earle who he is. Over the course of his restless recording career, he has followed his muse-whether it was a blue collar populist country star, a relentless hard rocker, an old school bluegrasser or an insurgent singer/songwriter.

And with Washington Square Serenade, the now-Nashville ex-patriot has reached even further, not only responding to the realities of technology, but inspired by the new world he was occupying. “I’d just moved to New York City and I realized this is what I love about America; it’s not about the mall…it’s about all the different people coming together to create a whole. Here, everything comes together-and there’s energy, there’s individuality, there are different cultures. “That is what this country is made of.” A global traveler and icon, Earle absolutely rejects the homogenization of our culture.

It was the inspiration of NYC and a concern over an insidious racism that he perceives to be spreading tactilely through our nation that inspired him to write “City of Immigrants.” The lilting tropical rhythms buoy a celebration of diversity, and to further underscore the point, Earle recorded it with Brazilian group Forro in the Dark.

“Lou Dobbs pisses me off,” Earle says, normally fiery-black eyes blazing. ” ‘City of Immigrants’ is the most political song on the record, and it exists because of watching Lou Dobbs crank up this anti-immigrant campaign just as the Democrats are getting started with their immigration legislation on Capitol Hill.

“I grew up in occupied Mexico,” he continues, gathering steam. “Texas is part of the first illegal American land grab…and when I hear people talking about the Meztisos invading us, taking our jobs, I want to say, ‘But they were here first’…because they were. September 11 is about the other dark people-or else the fact that you’re completely impotent about what happened. All I know is that I see we have another mean-spirited group rising. It’s just easy to look at another group of dark-skinned people and single them out.”

Yes, his activism and trigger-points remain acute. But while Earle isn’t afraid to throw down, he was also seeking to make sense of his place in the new world order of record production. Room & Board (just outside of Nashville), the studio where many of his signature records were made, is being disassembled, the gear sold and the reality of recording being reconsidered. Even the future of Twang Trust, his longstanding production pairing with Nashville’s hyper-cool roots rocker Ray Kennedy is mutating-into what he is not sure.

“My interest in loops came from the fact that I was living in New York,” Earle says matter-of-factly, “and I’d not made a full set of demos since The Hard Way…and that was only because my drug habit had driven me underground, so that’s how the band learned the songs. Normally, pre-production starts on the road; I start writing and have the band learn the songs at soundcheck. We come off the road, and we know what the songs are gonna be. It would be pure inspiration for 10 days-a week in the studio, then the overdubbing begins.


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