Steve Earle’s superb new album The Low Highway effortlessly matches folk (the title track) against rock (“Calico County”) and soul (“Pocket Full of Rain”). The legendary songwriter recently supported his most fully-realized collection since 1997’s El Corazon on Late Show With David Letterman.
“You’re literally standing right where the Beatles stood at the Ed Sullivan Theater for Letterman,” Earle says. “I’d do it for that alone, but we’re friends with the program and we always have a blast. I know Paul [Shaffer] really well. He played with us the other night. When we need an extra pair of hands, we ask him to sit in.”
CMT Edge visited with the politically outspoken New York City resident about The Low Highway, the current economic climate and his early mentor Townes Van Zandt’s continued impact on music.
CMT Edge: Explain how the new album came together.
Earle: I wanted to do a record with the best band I’ve ever had. We were touring to support I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive [the 2011 album], and the band was so good I felt like it needed to be recorded. It was pretty organic and we recorded it in Nashville at Ben Folds’ place in five days. Ray Kennedy mixed it. I’ve been working with Ray long enough that I wasn’t even there for most of the mixes. I went on vacation with my family in Florida, and he sent mixes over the Internet.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I was traveling around and touring when I started the songs, and we were working on them at soundchecks. I was writing about what I saw out the window of the bus. What I saw out the window I think was a little closer to what Woody Guthrie saw through the door of a boxcar. There’ve been several generations of songwriters emulating Bob Dylan, who’s emulating Woody Guthrie, who wrote a lot about the Depression. The Depression’s even a fashion statement for singer-songwriters nowadays, but none of us has witnessed it firsthand, including Bob. Now, we kind of are. It’s really tough out there.
How did the three songs you wrote for Treme fit the album?
Well, the story of post-Katrina New Orleans also relates to these economic times, too. That’s why New Orleans hasn’t been fixed — lack of funds. You can’t take over the world and lower taxes at the same time without going bankrupt. You don’t have any money to take care of people when there are hurricanes and shit if you do that. There’s math that’s just starting to dawn on us.
Explain the story in “Calico County.”
I guess part of it is guilt. I think there are a lot of songs in country music nowadays that glorify redneck-ism to the point that it’s a little disturbing to me. I think some point to songs like “Copperhead Road” as the reason they’re doing that. “Copperhead Road” is actually part of a really political record about my growing up during the Vietnam War era. I wrote that album at the same time that Platoon was being made. It was a long time before anybody started talking about Vietnam, but people my age all grew up with it. Whether you went or didn’t go, it was part of your life.
“Calico County” is tongue in cheek, but it’s pretty dark. I think it’s a more honest look at stuff that pops up every once in a while, this glorification. I mean, I’m not someone who uses “party” as a verb. I’m not. I’m in recovery for one thing and have been for a long time. (laughs) Even when I did take drugs and drink, I didn’t use “party” as a verb. “Calico County” is my little backlash against that mentality.
“Pocket Full of Rain” is a more personal drug experience song, right?
“Pocket Full of Rain” is about a real crisis in recovery. You know, I still go to meetings and call my sponsor, and I go to at least three meetings a week at home. On the road, I go to as many as I can, but I usually don’t go longer than 10 days without. In the last few years, for whatever reason, I had a couple of real crises. I’ve been clean 18 years, but “Pocket Full of Rain” is pretty much what it says: It isn’t always a cakewalk, and it isn’t always effortless but the program does work. I’m still clean.
You’ve said the Occupy movement factored into writing these songs. Should all songwriters be as politically and socially conscious as you are?
I don’t try to figure out what anybody else should do about anything, much less songwriting. I am [political] and I don’t apologize for it. I tell you what people shouldn’t do: Tell me what I should and shouldn’t write about in America. I’ve experienced some of that in the past 10 years.
Yeah. Why was “John Walker’s Blues” [from 2002’s Jerusalem] so misunderstood?
I don’t think it was misunderstood. I think it was fear. I think we have a terrified bigot hiding in all of us. We’re Europeans who came to this continent and basically wiped out the people who were here before us, and there’s a lot of guilt and baggage that goes with that. Everybody’s freaking out about immigration, for instance. And the immigrants that they’re most worried about are Mexicans and who are Mexicans? They’re half Indian or three-quarters Indian or full-blooded Indian. They’re the only fucking people who aren’t immigrants on this fucking continent.
The whole thing is kind of stupid. When 9/11 happened, it played into the hands of people who are scared of everything anyway. I know people who were here in New York City when it happened and it affected them in ways that I can’t even imagine. I was still living in Tennessee when it happened, but I reacted to it because I have a son who’s exactly the same age as John Lindh. They’re two months apart. When I saw him duct taped to a board, I saw Justin [Townes Earle]. My first reaction to it was, “He’s got parents.” That’s it. I reacted as a parent.
Justin has turned into a pretty good songwriter in his own right.
Yeah, his best songs are as good as anybody’s, and he’s got a thumb like a jackhammer. He’s a really good fingerpicker.
Explain your upcoming memoir’s setup. It’s in three parts, right?
Yeah, it’s not an autobiography. I don’t think anybody gives a fuck what I did when I was 8. I don’t. It’s about mentors and teachers. The first part is largely about Townes, but it’s also about Guy and Susanna [Clark] and Mickey Newbury, my uncles, both my uncles, one on my mom’s side and one on my dad’s side, who were musicians. It’s mainly Townes, though.
The second part is about people in Nashville that I knew at the lowest point in my life who kind of took care of me and protected me, not because they loved me but because I was a commodity. They were both drug dealers, and they happened to be first cousins. Without them, I would have never survived a period [being] homeless in Nashville and the time I was in jail. You know you’re in trouble when you get to jail and you already know people there.
The third part’s about my grandfather. He became a hero to me when I got clean because it suddenly dawned on me who the people sleeping on his couch were. My grandfather started most of the 12-step programs in northeast Texas. So, the third part’s about my mentors and heroes in recovery, and the book’s gonna be called I Can’t Remember if We Said Goodbye. I should finish it by the end of next year.
You met Townes early on. Describe his friendship with Guy Clark.
I knew him since I was 17. There were two people closer to Townes than his wife and me and that’s Guy and Susanna Clark. Susanna was closer to him than Guy was for a long time. Guy and Townes were real-live unconditional best friends. They did co-sign each other and Guy still co-signs Townes’ bullshit to an extent. I do envy a friendship on that level. I don’t think I have one in my life.
How does Townes still influence you as a writer?
I’m still decoding his songs. He was so good and it’s pretty complicated. He influences me a lot. Townes, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are four artists where I’m always finding a different favorite album every time you ask me. I’ve listened to all of it again and again. I’m going through this middle-period Rolling Stones phase right now. That’s the stuff I like the best. The first song I learned to play on guitar was “Mother’s Little Helper.” I didn’t learn how to play it correctly, but I learned how to play it. The songs are so rich and Townes is like that.
I’ll go through a period of playing [Van Zandt’s] “Lungs” and I finally learned how to play “(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria.” I actually learned that song from Townes. It’s the only one I couldn’t quite figure out the chords, so he showed them to me and I did record it on Townes [Earle’s 2009 Grammy-winning album].
I always have a favorite Townes song, and I’ll be studying that stuff for the rest of my life. It influences me just because I’m immersed in it and it’s kind of permanent. I’m a Townes Van Zandt scholar. I think I qualify for that. (laughs) I know it pretty much chapter and verse.
What’s your current favorite Townes song?
Well, it’s been “Delta Momma Blues” since I recorded Townes. There’s just something really cool about that song and its androgyny is really fascinating to me. It’s happened a few times in rock and roll: He’s writing for a female character … or is he? I’m not sure that character has to be female. It’s weird, but it feels like it’s not necessary to make that decision about that character. There’s something really dark about it. It seems light, but it’s really a dark song.
Did you expect Townes to be so much more widely recognized after he died?
I was working toward that. I certainly did my share of running my mouth off. I think the Cowboy Junkies might know about Townes because of me. We’re the same graduating class. They’re Canadian, and they were making their first records when I was preaching the gospel of Townes and people were starting to listen to me.
When I got out of jail, I discovered Uncle Tupelo. I didn’t know Uncle Tupelo until it didn’t exist anymore. All those guys knew Townes chapter and verse, which I found gratifying. I mean, I believed it, so it’s not all that surprising that people are impressed by him. It sure took a long fucking time, though. I mean, by the time he died he was starting to get some recognition and he was making a record with the Sonic Youth guys when he died. As more time goes on, the more people know about him. I mean, Mumford & Sons are one of the biggest bands in the world, and they cover Townes Van Zandt.
Have you heard the tapes from that Sonic Youth session?
I don’t listen to that stuff much. I think “Sanitarium Blues” is from those sessions. I haven’t tried to find it because I guess I’m afraid to. By the same token, I’m not a fan of all the volume after volume that Rick Rubin kept putting out on Johnny Cash. I think it eventually got into stuff I’m not sure John would’ve been OK with.
How do you feel about the Townes documentary, Be Here to Love Me?
I haven’t seen Be Here to Love Me. I’ve seen [director] Margaret [Brown]’s other films and I sat for interviews for it, but I just don’t have the heart to watch it. I know what it’s about, and I’m glad somebody made a film about what and who Townes really was on those levels because it helps prevent him from being … well, there are some people who are gonna glorify [drug and alcohol abuse] no matter what to justify their own behavior, which I don’t begrudge. I suffered from it myself, but I don’t think it’s positive. I just don’t want to watch Townes die again. I already did it.