Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Steve Earle is the country singer of choice among literate people with leftish politics, cutting-edgish tastes and a bit of attitude. That is, among people like Steve Earle, who reveres such classic Nashville songwriters as Hank Cochran and Harland Howard while listening to Beck and the Geto Boys, and who’s equally happy to talk about Ray Price or Raymond Carver.
Earle’s first two albums, Guitar Town and Exit 0 , were among the best and most influential country records of the eighties; his lyrics had the literary virtues of plot and character, and his music combined the ache of country with the energy of rock. Like such contemporaries as Lyle Lovett and the O’Kanes, though, Earle was too smart and edgy for country radio, and his third album, the loud aggressive take-no-prisoners Copperhead Road , with its title song about a dope-growing Vietnam vet, ended whatever career he might have had as a corporate country star. Meanwhile, his own drug problems were getting worse. He released two more albums, the under appreciated The Hard Way and the live Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator before heroin took him down; in 1995, he was busted for possession of heroin, served three months in jail (on a one-year sentence) and got clean.
Earle’s comeback began with the spare acoustic set Train A-Comin’ . He returned to his trademark mix of rock and country on I Feel Alright , and his most recent album, El Corazón , may be his best since the eighties. It ranges from pure acoustic bluegrass to grungeoid rock with feedback guitar and even a stuttering sampler. It opens with an elegiac invoca-valediction to the late Townes Van Zandt—and adds up to a self-portrait of a complicated, conflicted and passionate man.
David Gates The last time I talked to you was probably about ten years ago. I don’t know if you remember this. I took you to tea—
Steve Earle Oh yeah—
DG —at some hotel lobby in midtown. And it didn’t hit me until I got back to my office afterwards that we’d walked the check.
SE We did? Huh. Oh well.
DG And on another personal note: I have a ten-year-old stepdaughter whose absolute favorite song for a couple of years was “The Devil’s Right Hand,” off of Copperhead Road.
SE That’s weird about that song and kids. You’re probably the tenth person that’s said that to me, about a small child.
DG What do you suppose the appeal is? That theme of the mother warning the kid and the kid paying no mind?
SE It may be more basic than that. It’s got a chorus that repeats itself, and it’s real simple. That’s just from observing my own kids. It was my oldest son’s favorite song for a long time. Until he discovered Nirvana.
DG Now, I remember you were working on a novel back then.
SE Yeah, I messed around with that for a long time. I wrote it as a short story, then I decided it could be expanded into a novel. I spent a whole month in Mexico working on it in 1990. And then my drug habit got to really raging, and I pawned the computer with the story in it. I never printed it out and never backed it up. After I got clean and got out of jail, I eventually started writing short stories again, and reconstructed that story, “Wheeler County.” It’s much better than it was before. But when I first got out I began by writing really bad poetry, just as an exercise to make myself write every day, because writers are terrified of blank pages.
DG Do you make a distinction between poetry and song lyrics?
SE Sure. I agree with Gregory Corso—I mean, I understand why it irritates him when they call songwriters “poets.” Songwriters have the advantage of refrain, they have the advantage of the emotions that tonality in and of itself evokes, and poets don’t have that. I’ve got two really close friends who are poets, and both of them said the identical thing when I asked them about it: “You know, poetry’s hard.” And it is. It’s absolutely the purest and toughest form of art. It fascinates me, and I haven’t given up on it.
DG Do you read a lot of fiction?
SE Not a lot. Just because of time. I really need to read nonfiction, but I do have a thing for well-written historical fiction.
DG Ah. So I guess you’ve read Cold Mountain.
SE Oh yeah. I gave it to my friend Tony Fitzpatrick about nine months ago. He’s a poet—and a painter and an engraver and a printer and an actor. Pisses me off. He turned me on to most of the modern fiction I know about. He finally read it, and he called me up three times while he was reading the book, going nuts. The way I write myself is kind of archaic. My short stories tend to have a beginning and a middle and an end. Whereas everybody today tries to emulate Raymond Carver—and not everybody is Raymond Carver.
DG You don’t think Carver’s stories have a beginning, middle and end?
SE I mean in the sense that they don’t usually cover a lot of time. It’s like you’re sitting in one place, and anything that happens in a different time frame is just barely touched on because you only have that much room. It’s really unique, and he did it amazingly well.
DG So do you still want to write a novel?
SE No, not anymore. The novel’s the sexy thing, but the Great American Novel’s already been written, and it’s called Huckleberry Finn.
DG Were you able to write any songs in jail?
SE No. Where I was it was really noisy, and you could just forget about writing anything. Anyhow, there’re no guitars in jail. That’s just in the movies.
DG Where did they have you?
SE It was a county jail. In Davidson County. I lived in Williamson County, and I was always pretty smart about not shitting in my own backyard. All the dope was in Nashville anyway. Most of the trouble I got into was there. Although they did raid my house in Williamson County one time, because I didn’t show up for jury duty. What they wanted to do was just search the house.
DG So you were, like, notorious.
SE Yeah, by that time I was. My wife had left, I was living in this big house by myself, and I didn’t spend very much time there. I’d come home just to sleep, which I’d do about every six or seven days. So I’m asleep on the couch and the police come through the front door. The whole thing was illegal, and it all went away. They tried the door and it happened to be unlocked, so they just came on in and got me. They get me down to the booking area at Williamson County Jail, which is about seventeen or eighteen miles on two-lane roads from my house, and I’m sitting there, it’s early in the morning, I’ve been woke up, without any dope, which was not good at the time—I had a really bad heroin problem and a really bad cocaine problem. I’m sitting there and here comes this guy in an achy-breaky haircut, with a clipboard, and he says, “Steve, I’m so-and-so from the 21st Judicial District Drug Task Force. Just need you to sign this so we can go out to your house and get whatever dope’s there.” I looked up and I said, “Fuck you.” Like, you’re gonna have to work for your money.
I got somebody there really quick and at nine o’clock, boom, I was out of there. You know, just as soon as they could get down to the office and post bond. And I got my ass out of Williamson County. I had to go before the judge to be arraigned a week later. I get up there and she goes, “Well, this is about jury duty, but there are some other concerns. There’s some material that’s been taken from your house that’s going to go before the grand jury next week.” And I said, “Your Honor, if these guys had done their homework and all, they’d know that if I was home and I was asleep, that means I’m out of dope.” I mean, it was that simple. There was no chance of there being any drugs there.
DG This all went down in 1995. By then you’d been around Nashville a long time.
SE Yeah, I got to town in November of 1974, when I was nineteen. I spent a year trying to be a Nashville songwriter. I had to deal with a publisher and I went into the office every day. And I learned a lot about structure because I got a lot of practice at the craft side of it.
DG Did you talk with the old hands, like Harlan Howard?
SE Sure. Harlan is one of my very, very favorite people. He’s a great guy, and he’s always taken an interest in younger writers in town. I saw him just the other night, at the Nashville Music Awards. I was lucky enough to get onto the tail end of the old order in Nashville, and the old order always allowed for some cool stuff to happen here and there. I met Hank Cochran during that period, when he ran Pamper Music for Ray Price. Ray owned it, basically, but Cochran had a piece of it. Ray was there, Hank was there, Willie Nelson was there, Roger Miller was there—they had the most incredible staff in town at one time. And they were writing hits. They were writing motherfucking hits.
DG People have forgotten how fucking amazing Roger Miller was.
SE I tell you who hasn’t, Scott Miller, from the V-Roys.
DG Whose records you produce.
SE Right. Scott’s absolutely fascinated with Roger Miller. They open their show every night with “The Moon Is High.”
DG God, it’s hard to believe those songs were once on country radio.
SE They weren’t just on country radio. He was the most successful American recording artist during the British Invasion.
DG Which is amazing, because those songs of his were so out there.
SE Oh, they were way out there. “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.” Everything about that song’s out there. Do you know how that song came about? He wrote it on a dare. They used to do these sessions where they would record six, ten songs. He said, “Just give me the first two lines or a title and we’ll cut it right here.” Who knows whether the melody existed before—probably it was a guitar thing he’d been sitting around playing. Somebody said, “My uncle used to love me,” and the first thing out of his mouth was, “My uncle used to love me but she daaaaaaaed.” I mean, he was fucked up, there’s no doubt about it.
The guy that plays organ on El Corazón, Michael Smotherman, was Roger’s keyboard player for years. When he’d been in the band about a year and a half, two years, they hired a new drummer. And after about 24 hours out, the guy turns around to Michael and says, “Hey, how long has Roger been up?” And Michael goes, “I been with him for about a year and a half, but I don’t know how long he was up before that.”
I met Roger Miller in the Spence Manor—it was 1975, and I was out at Guy Clark’s house, making a tape. Guy was living out at Old Hickory Lake by that time—the same house that Townes Van Zandt was living in when he died. Anyhow, Guy and I were sitting there and the phone rings and he says to me, “You want to meet Mickey Newbury?” I said, “Sure.” So we jump in the car, we drive the thirty miles into town, walk in and not only is Mickey Newbury there, but Roger Miller’s there—and wired for 220. The guitar goes around the room a few times, and after about 45 minutes or so, Roger got up and left and drove all the way to Wartrace, Tennessee, to order a Gallagher guitar. Woke J.W. Gallagher up in the middle of the night—this is about three or four years before J.W. died—and then came back while we were still sitting there. He was back before the sun came up. Just barely.
DG Well, those Gallaghers are wonderful instruments. Do you have a favorite guitar?
SE Sometimes I think I have too many guitars. I’ve got a Roy Smeck reissue that Gibson did, that I play a lot. It’s cool. It doesn’t have the old baseball bat neck, but other than that the dimensions are right and it’s a really good-sounding guitar. The sound hole’s in the right fucking place. I own quite a few 12-fret guitars. I fingerpick a lot and they work better for that. The guitars I use most of the time in the studio right now—which I guess must be my favorites—are a 12-fret dreadnaught built by a guy named John Dillon in Pennsylvania, and two Santa Cruzes. I’ve got a D, a 12-fret, and then I’ve got the Tony Rice model, which is a 14-fret, that I know I’ll never part with because it used to belong to Mac Wiseman. I decided I wanted a grown-up bluegrass guitar.
DG Do you still hang out and swap songs? Pick with different people?
SE Well, I just had a long, intense session with the Bluegrass Buddha—Peter Rowan was in town.
DG Right. He was in that amazing sixties Bill Monroe band with Richard Greene, and Lamar Grier on banjo.
SE Yep. That was a very cool band. Pete was there for almost three years. Which was a long time for anybody to be in Monroe’s band after Flatt and Scruggs left. He just discovered a journal that he kept back then. It’s all there, the entire time that he worked for Monroe.
DG Jesus, he’s got to publish that.
SE Oh, he’s going to. It’s like, new Monroe stories.
DG The best.
SE They are the best. But people tell some of the stories and they miss the point. There’s one New York story: he was at the Carnegie Deli with the whole band after a show, and somebody went and got him a bagel with cream cheese and the whole bit. He eats the whole thing, and turns around and he goes, “Well I believe that’s the worst doughnut I ever had.” People tell that as if it’s some sort of rube story. That was Bill’s sense of humor. He was a smart motherfucker.
DG You’ve said that your next record is going to be a hardcore bluegrass album. Will it be covers, or your own songs?
SE My songs. All new songs. I’m doing this record—and this is going to sound arrogant as hell, but fuck it—I’m doing this record because I want to write enough songs that are aimed strictly at that genre, that bluegrass bands will still be playing after I’m gone. Bluegrass is the original alternative country music.
DG Speaking of alternative music: when I heard El Corazón, that song “N.Y.C.” made me think you’ve been listening to Beck.
SE Yeah. I couldn’t resist bumping the sampler on that song. A lot of people are trying to do that cut-and-paste thing and doing it badly. But there’s also some people that are pulling it off, and he’s better at it than anybody’s ever been. He made the only record that’s really of any importance lately—both full-length records are great. You know who turned me on to Beck was my son. He had the independent single on “Loser” and he brought it to me. That track still totally blows my mind. It’s like Bob Dylan meets the Geto Boys.
I’m real into hip-hop. I’ve got a friend that runs the hip-hop store in Nashville, and he’s got a little record label. The last three or four years I was using that was really all I listened to. I didn’t even have a guitar, and I couldn’t make music. I don’t have a bias against gangsta rap—in fact most of what I listen to is pretty hard, but it’s about the musical stuff. Unfortunately, some of the worst hip-hop is coming out of the South, but New Orleans has a really strong scene, and Houston’s got a very very very strong scene. The Geto Boys—those records were great records. And the two Willie D solo records are probably my two favorite hip-hop records. I carry those two records nearly all the time, and I carry Bootlegs and B Sides, that Cube compilation. It’s alternate mixes on a lot of stuff that was on Predator and the album before that.
DG Do you like the old Schoolly D records?
SE Oh yeah. Yeah, I like anything that’s musical. I don’t like the slow drag, rollin’ in my six-four thing. I don’t dig that because it tends to get real unmusical. The best stuff to listen to, if you want to hear rappers, if that’s what gets you off, then the Jamaican shit is still the best shit. By far. It’s where it started, and it’s just the best stuff around. (pause)
DG So if we can talk politics for a second, yesterday they executed Karla Faye Tucker down in your home state. Since you wrote “Billy Austin” and “Ellis Unit One,” I assume you’ve been following this whole thing.
SE Yeah. Yeah, I was watching. The deal with Karla Faye Tucker is, I think it’s a good question about whether somebody’s really genuinely changed. But see, I’m completely and totally opposed to the death penalty, period. I think that Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were fucking murdered. And murder’s murder. I don’t trust the state to have that power. It’s a real black-and-white issue for me. I grew up in Texas, and I could never live there again. There’s no way. If Tennessee ever executes anybody, I’ll move. And there’s going to be a federal execution if things keep going the way they’re going. McVeigh is almost in sure death. What frightens me is that things are getting meaner out there. For a politician, it’s suicide—you can’t get elected if you’re against the death penalty. There was never any question that the governor would make any sort of move. If he’d been fucking Karla Faye Tucker, he couldn’t do it—there’s no way in the world.
This pro-death penalty fever out there is part of the very same meanness that makes a guy walk up and bash in somebody’s window, and cap ’em in the head, pull ’em out, drop ’em on the street and drive away with their car. People think it’s a reaction. It’s not. It’s the same thing. It’s part of the same phenomenon. The shit’s contagious. There’s no such thing as a person deciding, I’m not going to do this horrible, heinous thing because I’m afraid I’m going to get executed. People who reach the point of being able to commit an act like that are incapable of thinking that way. The new argument is, Well, at least it prevents him from doing it again. Yup. Yeah, it does. At the expense of your soul and the soul of every citizen of your state. Maybe you can live with that—I can’t. I’ve probably bought a B-1 bomber by now, and I have enough trouble with that. I’m not going to pay them to execute people. They’re not going to do it on my tax money.
DG That first song on El Corazón, “Christmas in Washington,” depresses the hell out of me. “Come back, Woody Guthrie.” He’s not coming back. There’s no context anymore for purist lefties—a Woody Guthrie, or an Emma Goldman, or a Joe Hill. They’d either be ignored or co-opted. I mean, here are the two of us sitting in the Time-Warner building.
SE Well, the song started on election night, when I was disturbed at the fact that Clinton had kissed so many asses to get reelected when he was going to get reelected anyway. And it ended up being about my concern over the disappearance of any real Left. And it’s not just happening here. Tony Blair is Bill Clinton with a little classier accent and a little more control about his sexual habits—not that I give a fuck about Monica Lewinsky. I don’t think it’s any of my business, that girl was not a minor, she was probably predatory, and I just think that if I was president, you know, I could do better. None of these girls look like presidential pussy to me.
People vote their pocketbooks and the economy is in great shape—whatever that means—but there’s still a huge number of people who are completely and totally below a level where that has any effect. Their lives haven’t gotten any better. And I don’t think there’s any reason for people to go hungry in the richest country in the world. I came of age playing coffeehouses in Texas—I was too young to play places that served liquor—so that was my crowd, and that’s where my politics were shaped. And they were always pretty radical. I cut my teeth on the Communist Manifesto and Soul on Ice. That’s what everybody I knew was reading, and that’s what I read, too. I grew up during the fucking Vietnam War with the draft hanging over my head.
My politics have sort of come full circle. They moderated to some extent when I started having kids and worrying about the things that regular people worry about—moderation for me meant that I didn’t get as involved as I used to. When I started being in the position of commanding an audience of any size, I was asked to get involved in some things. And there’s the guilt that comes from somebody that has that sort of socialist background making a lot of money. There’s nothing in the Communist Manifesto that I don’t agree with, except for the idea that religion gets in the way somehow. That’s where they fucked up. When they pitted themselves against the church, they ensured their demise.
DG You mean they fucked up tactically?
SE They fucked up tactically and they fucked up philosophically. I think Karl Marx was molested by a priest or something. You know, people mistake the politics of the characters in my songs for my politics. That good old boy character was a real well-developed character. He was called Bubba. He’s the guy in “The Week of Living Dangerously,” the guy in “Someday.” The one negative review of Guitar Town was written by this kid—he was a kid at the time—named Jimmy Guterman, who was writing for the Phoenix back then, and it was this scathing review of what he perceived to be my politics rather than the character’s.
DG “Twenty-six dollars and a Jap guitar”?
SE Right. “Some funny-talking man from I-ran.” He didn’t understand what I was trying to get across, and—I do take some responsibility—I probably didn’t say it clear enough. It’s important to say stuff clear enough that idiots can understand it. I really don’t like to write over people’s heads—anybody’s head—if I can help it.
DG Am I remembering wrong, or was “Jap guitar” overdubbed on the single as “cheap guitar?”
SE Yeah. Tony Brown, the producer, asked me to do it. It was my first record and I really didn’t have any power in that situation. The head of the label, Jimmy Bowen, didn’t even want them to sign me, but Tony just sort of insisted on doing it. About the only chance I’ve ever known Tony Brown to take. So we changed it. I remember I said, “Well, yeah, Tony, far be it from me to alienate the vast Japanese-American country music audience.”
DG Given your defection from the world of corporate country music—though I guess the feeling was mutual—it must get a little strange still being in Nashville.
SE Well, my kids are there. One of my kids lives with me and two of them don’t, and if I want to see them then I have to stay there. But my studio’s right in the middle of Music Row, and so’s my office. I probably stay partially just to irritate ’em.
DG Nobody I know in Nashville can stand to listen to country radio anymore.
SE No, I can’t either. I try, and I can’t listen to it. I don’t know who half these kids are now. But there’s always been an underground. The core of it is songwriters who’ve managed to make a living and at the same time are writing really great songs, not going to the office or catering to the lowest common denominator every day. And the bluegrass players. I’ve hung out with those guys as long as I’ve been there. Because we were the freaks. We had something in common—well, most of us smoked pot. When I’m in town, I hang out at the Station Inn.
DG Bluegrass Central. You get up on stage there?
SE Well, sometimes I’ll just get behind the bar and sell Cokes. I won’t sell beer—I just don’t do it, because it doesn’t look good for me. Especially if you’re visible like I am. My bottom was public, and my recovery’s been pretty public, so I’m conscious of trying not to put myself in a position where anybody thinks that I’m fudging on the rules. Alcohol itself was no problem for me, but it would’ve been—it was just that by the time I bottomed out I considered it to be an inefficient drug and didn’t bother with it. There was a point when I drank a lot, back in the seventies. When I was in Guy’s band, I drank a lot. A lot.
DG Do you go to meetings?
SE Sure. You have to. You don’t graduate from twelve-step programs. My grandfather died with about nineteen years in him. It’s weird—all that came back to me, the fact that I grew up with the Serenity Prayer and the Twelve Steps on the wall. It’s the only way to get sober. There isn’t any other way that I know of. And I used heroin off and on for 27 years. I saw people get clean, I saw them die. It’s something I’ve been around. I’ve been around recovery and drugs all my life. I mean, I shot dope for a long time before I moved to Nashville. I actually stopped after I got there. I didn’t do any heroin for probably ten years, but I was drunk all the time. And then there was that period in the seventies when everybody was trying to have cocaine declared a vegetable.
When I started making money, and I was in places like here in New York, places where there was really good heroin, which there’s not in Nashville—in fact there’s virtually no heroin at all, it’s mostly dilaudid—my habit pretty quickly got to the point where snorting it or smoking it just wasn’t an efficient way to ingest it. I just went through too much of it that way, so I started shooting up again. You know, I am an addict and I always will be. And if I start thinking that I’m cured now and I don’t have to go to meetings anymore, or I don’t have to go as much, and I don’t have to do service work, start looking in the obit columns for me. I really believe that. If I go back out, I won’t survive 24 hours.
David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls. He writes about books and music for Newsweek.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.