Music

Steve Earle: ‘My job is to have empathy’


Guys in country music always like to think they embody the outlaw spirit. Steve Earle is the real deal. Born in Virginia in 1955, he grew up in San Antonio, Texas, learning guitar and becoming obsessed by music. At 14, he ran away from home to live in Houston with his uncle, a musician. At 16, he quit school and ran off in search of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, soon acquiring his idol’s killer habits. Hired as a songwriter in Nashville, Earle worked blue-collar jobs by day and played clubs by night. After a dozen years, Guitar Town, one of those rare career-defining debuts, put him atop the Billboard charts.

“I got a two-pack habit and a motel tan but when my boots hit the boards I’m a brand new man” he sang on the title track of an album that fused country with Springsteenesque attitude, discomfiting old-timers and helping change the metabolism of country music. Earle has since notched up a score of studio albums – Copperhead Road, Transcendental Blues, and Jerusalem among them – and he’s something of a renaissance man: a poet, playwright, short story writer, actor, and radio host with a long-running show, Hardcore Troubadour. Which he is.

Earle is regarded as one of the good guys, a man with a troubled past (seven marriages, six women, a lot of drugs) who served time, entered rehab, got clean. These days he lives a disciplined life, beginning his days early with yoga, the last element of his 12-step programme to be embraced aged 60. You sense a man committed to whatever he does, whether campaigning against the death penalty or tackling in music the hot-button issues of patriotism and terrorism. “Mississippi, don’t you reckon it’s time that the flag came down,” he sang in 2015. Right now, it’s the virtual launch of his powerful album, Ghosts of West Virginia. “You can’t do art from a place of fear,” he says – be it Covid or physical intimidation.

When we speak, Earle is sequestered at what his business manager calls “The Alamo”, the Nashville, Tennessee home he’s hung on to through six divorces. He’s missing New York City, where he’s lived since 2005. “I’ve been down here since 18 March, when the theatre, the gym and my son’s school closed,” he explains, pacing the wooden deck as he talks, the sound of his cowboy boots echoing down the phone line.

Steve Earle and the Dukes at Electric Lady Studios in New York City (Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Before the curtain came down on life as we know it, Earle was two weeks into a run of Coal Country at Manhattan’s Public Theatre. On-stage, with his guitar and banjo, he was both orchestra and Greek chorus, playing the songs playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen commissioned him to write. They are based, like the play, on testimonies from survivors and family members of the 29 souls who perished in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of April 2010 in Raleigh, West Virginia. Each is named in the visceral “It’s About Blood”.

Those seven Coal Country songs form the heart of Ghosts, recorded with his band The Dukes, and dedicated to “the people of West Virginia who occupy a unique position in the history of the United States of America”. The album is Americana at its finest, a powerful suite of songs at once both new and familiar-seeming, for they draw on folk music tropes and feature a local folk hero, pile-driving man John Henry. The songs reflect the reality of those in Appalachia’s mining towns, where music is a big part of life. Earle, whose distinctive voice roils up from the depths, tells their stories well.

These are people who “take whatever fate provides”, as he sings in the tender and reflective “Time is Never On Our Side”. Earle’s views on fossil fuels and carbon footprints haven’t changed – he believes in sustainable energy – but he recognises that the high-quality, high-price coal these men hewed, in 12-hour shifts, was crucial to their identity. “There’s a lot of pride in working in coal. And for people who don’t work in coal,” he says in his Texan drawl, “well, crack cocaine and speed are rampant. There’s no other way to earn a living.”

The commission was “a gift” and what’s pleased Earle more than anything is the response from the miners and their families who came to the city to see Coal Country and who saw in the process the sympathetic response of liberal New Yorkers to their tragedy. Ghosts of West Virginia was recorded at Electric Lady, the studio built by the late Jimi Hendrix in Greenwich Village, just four blocks from Earle’s home and “the only real recording studio left in Manhattan”. A life-long New York Yankees fan, he was drawn to the city by his other great passion, theatre, and the need to “put my finger in the light socket”. The intensity and the deadlines “drive me crazy”, but he thrives on them, the collaborative nature of theatre a change from writing’s solitude. He has three musicals in development, including one based on his 2007 album Washington Square Serenade, and there’s a TV project he can’t yet talk about.

In normal circumstances, Earle would be playing the summer festival circuit now. He’s worried that indie promoters and small clubs may not survive the shutdown. The big guys are getting rich on insurance payouts, he points out, while small venues will end up becoming part of big corporations. “People will always get together to see live music – streaming is not the same.” As it is, he’s at home writing. There’s a memoir and homeschooling his 10-year-old son John Henry, named for that mythical West Virginia “steel-driving man”. He’s sharing teaching duties with the boy’s mother, the singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, from whom he’s divorced. He regards the time as “a blessing”. John Henry is autistic and non-verbal, so a lot of time is spent making music. In New York, he attends a nearby private school with one-to-one teaching.

Every year, Earle plays a John Henry’s Friends benefit, at which the likes of Graham Nash, Shawn Colvin and Jackson Browne have performed. The fundraiser has enabled Earle to insist the school hire a music specialist, an aspect of life he rightly believes to be important. “One of my areas of activism is ensuring that kids with autism get what they need.”

Earle says that although he sings “more songs about girls than anything else”, he is “a political person. Nothing is off-limits. I make art about whatever there is to make art about.” Coal Country came at the right time: it was four years in the making, which means everyone set to work around the time of the 2016 presidential election. Earle was “looking for a project that speaks to people who vote differently from me”.

A self-proclaimed socialist (his songs played at Bernie Sanders rallies in 2016) who nevertheless votes for the Democrat in presidential races, he is vociferously pro-choice and anti-death penalty, and believes “the pistol is the Devil’s right hand”, as he wrote in one of his best-known songs. “Maybe they’re voting for something better than what they had before – some people’s lives didn’t get better under Obama – and I was trying to figure out how to start a conversation.” Earle felt he’d “preached to the choir” long enough. He and his confrères had to get beyond seeing all Trump supporters as “racists and arseholes” and understand why they voted as they did. “My job is to have empathy.”

‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is out now



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