Steve Earle talks line dancing, Harry Potter and Occupy Wall Street
For a man who looks like Santa’s burly, biker brother, Steve Earle sure has a soft spot for Harry Potter books.
“I love ’em. I can’t help it,” the country singer-songwriter said by phone from his home in New York. “I grew up with Tolkien, and it’s the same kind of pure escapism. I don’t get to take drugs any more, so reading and re-reading that sort of stuff takes the place of that in my life now.”
The Harry Potter books also deal with death, which happens to be a prominent theme in Earle’s debut novel, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. Set in part against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination, the book tells the story of a morphine-addicted doctor in Earle’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, who’s haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive is also the title of Earle’s latest album, which last week received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album.
The grizzled songwriter emerged as a songwriting force in 1970s Nashville before breaking out as a solo artist in the ’80s with hits like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. And at 56, Earle is as prolific as ever. He’s still an acclaimed Americana artist, but these days he may be better known for his political activism and roles on David Simon’s HBO series The Wire and Treme, for which he also writes music.
On Friday, Earle and wife Allison Moorer will each perform a solo acoustic show at the Orpheum in Ybor City. Tickets are $34-$50; click here for details. Here are some excerpts from our chat with Earle.
I’m reading your book. I’m about 100 pages in. It’s good.
Oh, cool. Thanks.
I don’t see you as a guy who drags his laptop into Starbucks to bang out chapters.
Naw. The people that are in Starbucks, I don’t think are really writing anything. I couldn’t do that. I could write at a coffeehouse in Spain, because my Spanish isn’t good enough that I wouldn’t be distracted. Or maybe France. But I’ve worked on it for eight years. About a third of it was written in an apartment that belongs to a friend of mine in Barcelona; some of it was written in the apartment here in New York. A lot of it was written in a place called The Writer’s Room in New York, which is just a big space with a lot of cubicles, and you rent it for $100 a month. One of the best deals in New York real estate. And then we have a house in Woodstock; some of it was written there. I need a place where there’s nothing else going on. It’s hard enough to shut off the music in my head.
As a songwriter, you’ve got to work within certain parameters. You’ve got to work quickly and concisely. But that’s not the case with a novel. That’s gotta be daunting.
Yeah. The kind of songwriting I do is the opposite of a Raymond Carver short story. You’re contracting time rather than expanding it. (laughs) Carver had that thing of, 50 pages could be a minute and a half, because he goes into such detail about everything that’s going on simultaneously. I tend to want to tell a story with a beginning and a middle and an end pretty quickly. I’m working on a song right now, and I was just looking at the first verse. I’ve got four lines that tell you that the guy grew up in this town, he moved away, and now he’s back, and things suck. And it’s just four lines, and it says all that pretty clearly. It probably spans 20 years in four lines.
What was your research process like? Hank was obviously a living being, and there are roots of some truth in the Kennedy assassination. I imagine you had to exercise some care to get a few things right.
Yeah. I’m pretty meticulous about that s---. I’m a big historical fiction fan. Some of my favorite books are Gore Vidal’s historical fiction, and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The Kennedy thing, all I had to do was go back and look and get the days right, because I was there when Kennedy landed at San Antonio International Airport the day before he was killed. I was 8, and my father was an air traffic controller at that airport. He called my mother and said, “You better keep the kids out of school, because Kennedy’s landing at 10 o’clock.” And we went. We were kept out of school and brought there to see Kennedy land. So that’s an embellished eyewitness account.
Did you ever pick up anything from David Simon about the art of writing, pacing, storytelling, anything like that?
Well, I never asked him anything directly. But I’ve certainly learned a lot from him. That’s one of the reasons I do what I do. I don’t get a s---load of money from having a small part on an HBO television show. I’ve made a lot of money on Treme because of the music. I made very little money on The Wire. David Simon gave me my first job as an actor, and I’ve worked for David Simon and Tim Blake Nelson. That’s pretty good words to get to go out and say. And you do learn a lot about writing. In Treme, I’ve been sort of privy to the curve of that whole story arc. Sometimes I had to get let in on secrets early, because I had to come up with a song. Me getting killed, I knew — I figured it out. But I wasn’t actually told until two weeks before, because that’s sort of a policy with David. He thinks it makes actors act different. I’m still writing songs for the show. I just wrote a new song for the show, for the first episode of the third season. I’ve tried to talk him into making me a vampire or something, but he wouldn’t go for it.
Can you compare the process of working with a producer in the studio to working with a book editor?
Yeah, I think a good book editor, it’s the same. It’s a little less direct because it’s done by email and mail, for the most part. An editor doesn’t stand over your shoulder and point things out to you. They send you a marked-up page. I learned very quickly how to mark something up to print it as-is. There are times when I’ll just say, “Hey, I wrote that the way I wrote it for a reason. But for the most part, I’ve had really good luck with editors and found their input to be really helpful.”
What’s the format of a solo acoustic show like this? Do you and Allison trade songs?
No, she’ll probably do her own set. And we’ll play some together. Touring with a band, we kind of do it all together. This show is happening because we’re doing The Nation magazine’s cruise, which we’ve done before. It’s their big fundraising event out of Fort Lauderdale a couple of days later. We were offered this, and we didn’t get there with the band on this part of the tour. There’s a community in Tampa-St. Pete that’s friendly to what I do and the way that I am, more so than a lot of other places in Florida. I guess it’s the existence of a radio station that actually does play my music. So here’s always been this audience of a certain size for me there.
I know you’ve done fundraisers for WMNF, the community station down here.
For a long time, yeah. And that’s why. It’s just one of those things — it’s politics and art. It’s a place that actually does play my music. And there aren’t many places that do.
Are you able to strip down pretty much any song in your catalog to the bare essentials, just you and a guitar?
Most of it. The stuff that are really songs, you can. There’s a handful of things that I wouldn’t ever try to do solo, have never tried to do solo. Some things exist because you have the band, and you make them a record with a band, and that’s who you play them with. But most of the ones that are really songs, I can usually play on one instrument. But I’ve played without a band for a long time before I ever played with a band. I never fronted a band until I was in my late 20s.
Does it surprise you that Copperhead Road is still such a popular line dance song in mainstream country clubs? It ranks right up there with Watermelon Crawl and Boot Scootin’ Boogie.
I guess they do. I’ve never really experienced that. When that was happening, I was sort of homeless. Copperhead Road became a line dance in the middle of the line-dance craze, which was at a point where I was pretty far gone from country music. And so I’ve never even seen that. I don’t know what it’s like. I grew up in Texas, so to me, the line-dance thing was always looked at as a little strange. The whole line-dance craze originated from two dances that were done every night in every dance that ever happened in Texas, which were the Cotton Eyed Joe and the Schottische. They were the only two line dances. And the rest of the time, everybody was dancing in pairs. I was shocked at the whole line dance thing. If I have any experience (with line dancing), it’s peripherally, because I haven’t been played on country radio in a long time. Copperhead Road was never played on country radio. It was way, way, way, way, way too far past every indicator that determined what got on country radio. I remember the people from my label coming in and hearing it when we were making the record, and I was transferred over to the rock division, and that was it.
It’s something to see when people get out on the dance floor, and they play it, and people all start stomping at the same place. It’s an interesting sight.
I’m sure it is. It’s just like The Galway Girl. I have a song that’s culturally a much bigger deal in Ireland than anything I’ve ever written in the United States. The Galway Girl is played at virtually every wedding that happens in Ireland, and has been for a decade. It’s Galway city football club’s team song. And that’s arguably a culture that puts a lot higher value on a song than ours does. It’s weird, man.
Have you gotten involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement at all?
Yeah. I went to a spokescouncil the other night. It’s pretty amazing.
Can you articulate what the Occupy Wall Streeters want? In your mind, what is it they’re looking to accomplish?
What they’re looking to accomplish is that people know that they are who are, and who the are is the first generation to get the door slammed in their face. They’re people with college educations who can’t get a job. They’re people with three quarters of a degree that there’s no grant money for them to finish their education. They’ve come to realize that it’s a lie, the idea that anyone can be anything they want to be in America. But this generation, these people that are doing this, they’re educated, and they have smartphones, and they have computers, and they know how to f---in’ use them. So they are dangerous.
If you go down there and you don’t pay attention, it’ll seem like chaos to you. But the fact is, it’s a worldwide movement. I just traveled all over Europe, and I went to four or five different sites in Europe. One was in Birmingham, England; there were about 10 tents. But in Dublin, they had the entire Bank of Ireland completely surrounded. They didn’t shut it down; people went to work every day, but they had to walk through the whole campsite to get in and out.
The way they govern themselves is all about not having leaders, and I think people confuse that for a lack of direction and a lack of message. But the message is that what happens on Wall Street controls way too much of what happens to everybody in their day-in, day-out lives. It’s pretty amazing. It’s two months, and it’s still going on. It’s a worldwide movement.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Ted Barron