STEVE EARLE: The Last Hardcore Troubadour

“Steve is very much a scholar of music history,” Goldberg explains of the studio’s allure, “and he’s very much aware of the legacy of the music that came out of there. It’s four blocks from his house with psychedelic murals on the walls.” Merging what was-with what will be. In the end, though, it comes down to the songs.

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“We’re not making people care enough,” he concedes. “My standards have been pretty good. I don’t have any records I’m ashamed of…I have some that sound dated, but I think that’s part of outlasting three kinds of technology (records, CDs and now downloads). But what’s consistent is what’s important to me: writing great songs.

“I own a couple hundred guitars and a lot of gear, but I could get in my truck with one guitar and support myself. That’s what it really comes down to. And this time, for this record, I’m going out alone with my Allison. Because that’s where it starts and where it has to come together. I have the best bunch of songs I’ve had in a long time.

“Songs suck because the writers suck. Why do people download [illegally] in the first place? I asked my son Ian when he was 14 why he was engaging in this activity that threatened his ability to have a college education. And he told me ‘cause it wasn’t worth paying for. That stopped me short. I think there’s lots of good music for adults out there, but it’s how you get to them.”

Goldberg seems equally heartened by his client’s ability to make an organic record that has such progressive power. Not one to ever come across like he’s got it nailed, the man who might well be an heir to the great old school music moguls of taste and intellect-like Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun-has already begun circling the wagons to sell Washington Square Serenade.

“Marketing is in a state of flux for all music. Radio is changing. Television is definitely changing, especially in terms of video,” Golderg reports. “New media is growing. Press is very important. Touring is very important. Retailers like Borders, Barnes & Noble and will be very important. NPR, Triple A and Americana radio stations as well as alternative media that’s not so wedded to formats: Pandora’s Box, XM and Sirius Radio, where Steve has his show. And there’s [television show] The Wire, where Steve’ll do four episodes, but he’s also recorded the opening theme. It’s all very good exposure.”

That theme is Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” the tense, terse song that also closes Serenade. Like Earle, Waits represents an artist with singular vision, a unique voice and a poet’s touch that lives at the fringes, margins and unseen middle ground.

“I wrote ‘Tom Ames’ Prayer’ and ‘Ben McCulloch’ when I was 19,” he says. “And Guitar Town‘s conciseness wouldn’t have been possible without learning the craft. But there’s a decision you make. I met Townes Van Zandt when I was 17. Whatever he was-an alcoholic, and forget the mental health problems-the most lucid he was was when he was making decisions about his art. He decided to write songs at a certain level, whether he made money off it or not.”

That stuck with Earle, who during the very first national interview for Guitar Town proclaimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the best damn songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Technology or no, this genre or that, Steve Earle sets a high bar. But like most everything, he’s not going to apologize for having standards. “We all wanted to be Townes Van Zandt without killing ourselves…and the music then was better then because the guys were better. It was that simple.


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MERGE RECORDS: One Step at a Time