STEVE EARLE: The Last Hardcore Troubadour

“But this time, it was the opposite. And when I started looking around, this was a way for me to figure it out in my apartment. I was able to play to loops I created from other loops, because there are tons of them out there. If you buy the program, they’re yours, and if you take a loop that’s four bars and start it at the second, you have a completely different loop…

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“I mean, I set out to make a folk record, really, but arrived at it through hip-hop. But it’s the same thing; you’ve got a bunch of kids who get a piece of gear they don’t know what to do with, and they keep pushing the buttons until they come up with something else.

“Folk includes hip-hop, because it harkens back to an era when every kid at NYU had a banjo. That’s turned into kids abusing their turntables and tearing records to turn them into other things. With computers, you can really make them into something wholly your own. This stuff is the same idea that gave birth to garage bands. It’s not so far removed.”

Still, Earle has always been loudly and pointedly critical of hip-hop, programming and the leveling of the playing field created by ProTools. Could falling in love with a beautiful woman, moving to New York and deciding to move away from such overt politics have softened the iconoclastic musician?

“I’m not anti-hip-hop,” Earle proclaims. “But I am anti-greed, because greed destroys creativity…if it’s about being the biggest thing going, then people are doing it for the money, not about making it great. I believed one of the things that hurt songwriting was that technology was getting in the way of the lyrics. They just weren’t as important ‘cause there were ways to compensate.

“From that, it seemed like [we weren’t making] records as great as we once did. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, people were really striving…and I don’t think it was about the money. It went down hill, came back a bit in the ‘80s, but if it’s just about the money, well…

“I mean, records were such a big part of our lives when I was growing up, even when I was in my 20s and 30s. Music was something we had to have-and you’d do what you had to do to get it! I don’t think it’s that way as much. And the slump in the record business isn’t just changes in technology; it’s the industry and the artists, too. You know, we got to a point where lyrics didn’t… don’t seem to matter, and I don’t get that. That’s a big part of it.”

Yet in classic Earle fashion, once he faces where he is-and he’s had always been a groundbreaker, recognizing that his kind of country was probably closer to the brazen rock of Guns ‘N Roses than MCA Nashville label mate Conway Twitty, asking for a transfer to the label’s L.A. division, starting his own record company E-Squared to make music on his own terms (“We didn’t have marketing meetings,” he confesses. “It might’ve helped…though I wasn’t much of a business person, because I wanted to do all these things for the artists.”)-he’s smart enough to make it work for him.

Though not the most computer savvy, Earle has found that his creativity can not only flourish, but potentially expand through proper application of technology.

“70 to 75, maybe even 80 percent of this record could’ve been written the traditional way,” allows the man who plays recovering addict Waylon on HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire, thinking his way through the answer. “But some of the tracks…‘Down Here Below’ was totally a creature of ProTools. I could pick up and move a whole chorus-try things in different places. There are things you can do because of the computer. The vocal on ‘Satellite Radio’ was recorded in my apartment. That was something I was able to do at home, and we ended up putting it on the record.”

But before you move Earle to Thomas Dolby’s cubicle, know this: While he worked with the Dust Brothers’ John King, technologically-but also organically savvy as evidenced by his work with both Beck and the Rolling Stones-the album itself was recorded at NYC’s famed Electric Ladyland, where Jimi Hendrix recorded much of his defining music.


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