Steve Earle Sings the Blues, Not Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah


Steve Earle‘s Terraplane backs typically vibrant vignettes (“You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had”) with deep blues (“Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”). The New York City resident spoke with CMT Edge about his seamless new record and growing up watching legendary bluesmen in Texas.

“The acoustic stuff on the record isn’t really out of the ordinary,” Earle says. “I mean, I saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark saw him more than I did and they were my teachers.”

CMT Edge: Describe how the new record took shape.

Earle: A lot of the impetus for me was [Earle’s lead guitarist] Chris Masterson, who cut his teeth on that stuff. It’s what he started out playing and things started organically happening at soundchecks. As much as I tour, my next records are always based on soundchecks from the previous tour. I just wrote one song and then I wrote another and then, “Oh, I’m writing a blues record.”

Explain how essential Mance and Lightnin’ were in shaping you as a songwriter.

Well, the first time I went to Houston I was 14 and ran away from home. I was already playing a coffee house in San Antonio by then and I knew who Townes was. I knew who Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins were. I went to Houston and spent a month there as kind of a fugitive and I saw Mance play at Sand Mountain, so it was a pretty early thing. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, I guess, but my dad wouldn’t let me have an electric guitar and I organically became a folkie from the beginning and I started writing songs really young.

Lightnin’ was particularly big for Townes.

Lightnin’ was kind of everything to Townes. If you asked him who his biggest influences were, he’d always say Robert Frost and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s a good yard stick for me. If somebody doesn’t understand that, I don’t hang out with them.

Explain the new album’s title.

“Terraplane Blues” is a Robert Johnson song, which I did record but it’s not on the record. It’ll be a bonus track and our Record Store Day single. Terraplane was also an automobile, the fastest affordable automobile in the ’20s and ’30s and it was made by Hudson. The car is usually a metaphor for something sexual, like it usually is in blues songs.

“You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had” is pretty direct.

That started out to be the Lightnin’ thing and then I realized it was more like “Smokestack Lightning,” so I stayed on the acoustic guitar and it developed a thing of its own. You know, it made something I heard Tony Joe White say make sense. Tony Joe said he became himself by hearing Lightnin’ Hopkins for the first time. He was in Louisiana listening to this Lightnin’ Hopkins record his brother had and that was everything. Changed him overnight and the way he played guitar.

Suddenly “Polk Salad Annie” and even “Rainy Night in Georgia” made sense to me in a way they never had before. So, it was some of that and I wanted that trance kind of thing. The title comes from just saying that. There’s something about saying that. It’s a big statement.

The message isn’t necessarily typical blues, though.

I did put a lot of work into making it a little less misogynistic than sexually-oriented blues songs can be. At least in recent history, blues for white audiences gets categorized as music for guys a lot of the time. I was trying to avoid being that so much. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but I was trying to make it a little softer.

You’ve said the blues are anything but superficial. Explain.

Well, you know, you can try to emulate the math and make something 12 bars, state a problem, repeat that problem and then fail to resolve that miserably in the third line — and it still won’t ring true unless you’re finding it. The blues is the same as anything else. It’s about empathy. Any kind of songwriting is about empathy. Songs work because people hear you talking about things that happened to you but they have some experience of their own that they can relate to. That’s the only time it works.

Townes once said blues is happy music. Agree?

He said a lot of stuff about that. It can be. He also said, “There’s two kinds of music: blues and ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’” (laughs) That’s the quote I remember most about Townes and the blues but I think it’s about tension like “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now.” There are things in that song that are true but a lot that’s not true. I’m not sure I believe the guy that’s talking in that song.

Describe the biggest challenge in playing blues on guitar.

Oh, I don’t know. It can be intimidating, like I said, because I’ve known some really, really great guitar players, but I had the secret weapon of Chris Masterson. The solos are him for the most part except for “King of the Blues.” That’s mostly me. I think it’s one of those things where I’ve always done it to some degree and I just got more confident.

Are writers born with the blues or can you learn?

I think it is something you have to live with for a while and have to come up doing. I’m not sure you could take someone who’d never done it and had gotten to a certain age and say, “Here’s how you do this,” and it’d automatically work because you showed them where to put their fingers. It’s not just about that. It’s about what you don’t play sometimes. It’s about pulse and the relationship between your heartbeat — and therefore your audience’s heartbeat — and the time signature, not just math.