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Cover Story: Steve Earle

| April 30, 2019 | 2 Comments

It’s a puzzlement, a Sphinx-like riddle for the ages. How in holy hell has resident alt-country iconoclast Steve Earle managed to keep his mouth shut over the past three Trump-and-Brexit bedeviled years? Make no mistake, what he’s offered instead has been stunning —2017’s picture-perfect loper So You Wannabe an Outlaw — polished still brighter by guests like Willie Nelson and Miranda Lambert — and the new labor of love GUY, a collection of covers by the Texan’s first Nashville mentor, the late Guy Clark. Relatively speaking, these are two of the warmest and fuzziest entries in his 18-album catalog. And he’s’ not vowing any return to vitriolic, fanged form in the future.

“The next record I’m working on is going to be very political, but just not a “preaching to the choir” record,” swears the 64-year-old. “It’s aimed at reaching people that maybe didn’t vote the way that I did, and seeing that maybe it didn’t have to be that way, because the biggest mistake we make is thinking that people who voted for Donald Trump are stupid and that this was an anomaly that can’t ever happen again.” What went wrong with the last election, then? Earle pauses, then sighs somberly. “There was just a lot of people out there that didn’t see their lives getting any better, and they just voted for something different. I want to take to THOSE people and try and change their hearts and minds. And I still really believe that music can do that.” How did Earle go placidly through the noise and waste while refusing to let the oppressive, divisive negativity weigh him down? Lyrically, he left a few subtle hints on Outlaw, starting the fiddle-fueled stomper “The Firebreak Line,” originally intended to be the album’s only political cut. On the surface, it details the exploits of a turn of the century firefighter, Ed Pulaski, who invented the trade’s definitive tool (known as the Pulaski Tool) that’s still in use today. “But I tweaked his story a little bit,” chuckles Earle, who has the protagonist saving all of his trapped workmen in a real-life 1910 mining disaster that not all survived. But he represents something much grander — and more universal — in scope — the one thing that’s guaranteed to provide him with inner peace, every single time.

For the past decade, or so — especially while touring the American West with his backing group The Dukes — the 64-year-old had found himself rising earlier and earlier in his secluded mountain hotels, where he began bumping into the same cadre of burly jump-suited gents in the lobby. They recognized him right away (perhaps by his increasingly pendulous salt and pepper beard —and praised his work. But the more he learned about these men and their death-defying deeds, the more he was in awe of their accomplishments. They were professional firefighters or ‘hot shots’ that would soon be celebrated in “Firebreak Line” — giving them their own anthem was the least he reckoned he could. But Earle was staying in the same lodgings and up at dawn for entirely different reasons — he kept venturing deeper into the wilderness, where forest fires regularly raged out of control, in pursuit of his one remaining addiction — fly fishing, which demanded monastic patience he never used to possess.

None of this happened overnight. It took some convincing. Earle first experienced hip-to-wader-booted angling the same way many Americans did — by viewing Robert Redford’s glorious depiction of the sport in his 1992 film adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It.  The sunlight-dappled visuals of one man testing his skill against an implacable force of nature like a stream stirred primordial emotions deep inside the singer, just as he was trying to quit heroin — possession of which had earned him a year-long sentence in the stir, all part of his edgy outlaw appeal, even though he only served 60 days. “So basically, fishing was a recovery thing,” he recollects. “My first sponsor fished with a fly rod, and he started taking me to all these fishing spots in town, and that’s when I first started TRYING to do it. And then I’m in New Mexico, of all places, and I got a female guide who was a really good teacher. And she taught me a lot about it, so I finally started learning how to fish.”

The singer pauses, mid-drawl, pauses, searching for the right equation. “It was just one of those things that happen,” he decides. “I travel all over the world, and I’m exposed to a lot of stuff, so I got into fly fishing the same way I ended up writing a song that’s played at every Irish wedding and pub session, “The Galway Girl.” And it’ll still be getting played long after I’m gone. Every time musicians get together in Ireland before the night is over, somebody will play “Galway Girl.” And at every Irish wedding, too.” Point being, the man doesn’t question the direction in which the current is pulling him. He just relaxes and goes with the flow.

But in interviews over the years, Earle holds nothing back, and he’s honest to a fault. You want to know about the color and texture of his old prison-issue uniform? He’ll willingly tell you everything you need to know, no holds barred. Happily, he’ll sing the praises of John Henry, his autistic son with last (and seventh ex-) Allison Moorer. “I just took my little boy to the Bahamas,” dad says. “Although I guess taking a nine-year-old to the beach is SORT of a vacation.” The rest of his free time — when he’s not starring in off-Broadway plays like Richard Maxwell’s recent Samara; penning his own dramas and novels like the Hank Williams-themed I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; punching the clock as colorful TV-show characters in Treme and The Wire; DJ’ing his own Hardcore Troubadour show on satellite radio; and running his annual Camp Copperhead songwriting workshop, not to mention cranking out short story collections — is devoted almost exclusively to fishing. And he’s gotten a reputation for playing bargain-basement concerts in off-road locations adjacent to the type of catch he’s seeking. It’s mainly trout, and catch and release only. “I can’t kill them anymore,” he confesses. “Although I will occasionally humiliate a fish before I put him back in the water.”

At the moment Earle’s favorite spot, he swears, is Idaho. “There’s so much less pressure out there, and there’s brown and rainbow trout, and there are cuts.” Cuts? He stops long enough to hip the layman to fishing vernacular. “I mean CUTTHROAT trout,” he tacks on. “There are some places in Idaho now where there are just full-blown cuts. So I always carry a couple of fly rods on the tour bus when we’re playing out west, which is where I started running into the hot shots, all of us up early in the hotel lobby while everyone else was still asleep. I had no idea I had such a following among those guys, and once I realized what they did, that was the beginning of where “The Firebreak Line” started. And of course, some of them fish.”

As with composing, there were many new tricks of the fly fishing trade for this novice to learn. Sometimes complicated, but often geographically simple. “Like, the fish are way bigger in New Zealand than they are anywhere else,” he says, “because there are no natural predators, so they’re way easier to catch, but harder to land because they’re so big. So I learned how to land a big fish while fishing in New Zealand because you can catch five pounds and up rainbow trout all day there, whereas you could fish your whole life in North America and catch maybe one or two fish that weighed over five pounds. And I don’t do lakes — I like streams, with running water.”

The man isn’t a Complete Angler just yet. He still has one species on his bust list, he admits. “I really, really dig big brown trout — I just haven’t caught one yet.” They call them fish stories for a reason. Does he have any I-almost-caught-Mr.-Big whoppers to relate? Yes, he reports excitedly. “I had two fish on at the same time! One on the dropper, one on the lower leader. One of them broke off, but I actually managed to land the other. Me and the guide were just standing there, going, ‘Are you SEEING this?’ It was this big pool in a small stream, and both fish just naturally bit at the same time.” He pauses again, lost in translation perhaps? Could be. “Other fishermen may have trouble believing that yarn,” he snickers. “But anybody else will not know what the fuck I’m talking about!”

It’s genuinely amazing that Earle found enough free time to cut his GUY tribute. But he’d known the laconic legend for so long — since 1979 1974 when he first hitchhiked to Nashville from his native San Antonio and wound up playing bass in Clark’s band, over a decade before his twanging masterpiece of a debut, Guitar Town, came out — he had no trouble selecting appropriate covers. He’d been performing them so long; he knew them all by heart. In 2009, he’d noted the passing of another friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt, with Townes. “And he did not co-write when I met him, and he never encouraged me to co-write,” the toutee recalls. “But at the end of his life he was co-writing with everybody, and he asked me to write a song with him. But I just could never get around to doing it, and that was one of my biggest regrets in life.” Because the sage-like Clark, a luthier by trade, had never failed to give him great, perfectly precise advice. “He’d say things like, ‘A song is never finished until you play it for an audience.’’

There was only one questionable inclusion — “The Randall Knife,” a father-son sonnet so stark it can bring tears to your eyes almost every time. Earle worried that it was almost too personal for inclusion. “But Guy worked on songs harder than anybody I knew, and I learned so much from him. And he was always working, right up to the end.” Songwriting by its very nature is a very unusual career, Earle concludes. “Because nobody tells you when to punch the clock, or when to get up and start developing your ideas every day. I mean, if you can’t get up to work? You are fucked, and you’ll never amount to anything.”

Earle plays The Foellinger Theatre in Ft. Wayne, IN on May 25, and Summerfest in Milwaukee on June 27th.

-Tom Lanham

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Category: Cover Story, Featured, Monthly

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  1. Keith Ledbetter says:

    Steve hitchhiked to Nashville the first time in ’75 not ’79.

    – Editor: You are correct Keith. Thank you – it has been updated.

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