Even for a musician who’s tried just about every musical form on the planet, Steve Earle and the blues seemed an unlikely combination, but with his new album Terraplane, the man who just about invented the term “new country” tells Acoustic how it came about.
When Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo walked arm-in-arm down the snow covered West 4th Street in West Village, New York City, the hunched young man with a beautiful long haired girl clinging to his arm became an iconic cover for Dylan’s Freewheelin’. It also woke the world up to the romance of living in 60s Greenwich Village. You might not bag Suze Rotolo, but there was a great music scene going on there. 50 years later, the symbolism still isn’t lost on Steve Earle.
‘I’ve lived here for 10 years since 2005, and I’m on Bleaker and McDougal right now. I know way too much about the history of the neighbourhood, but my job started here’ he chuckles. ‘There are lots of ghosts around these streets.’
For someone whose music is indelibly linked to Nashville, and the success of his 1986 breakthrough album Guitar Town – a Nashville epic reeking of rhinestone suits, cowboy boots, and more than a hint of Born In The USA – Earle’s relocation might seem a surprise. But a quick glance at his history suggests Steve Earle’s always been a musical gypsy.
He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, running away from home when he was 14, and eventually ended up in Houston where he met Townes Van Zandt, the man who became his lifelong role model. Following in Van Zandt’s footsteps, when he was 19, in 1974, he moved to Nashville, working in blue collar jobs and playing music at night with a gang of stellar songwriters that included Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and Townes Van Zandt. Unable to settle, he returned to Texas, where he formed The Dukes but, again, relocated to Music City in 1980.
Guitar Town was an unlikely mix of rockabilly, country, rock, and ballads that helped to define what became known as “new country”. The album marked him down as some kind of revved up country Springsteen, but three years later, along came Copperhead Road, an album with unlikely studio mates the Pogues guesting, and a harder edged rock sound. It was the beginning of a dark period when under the influence of his long-standing heroin habit, Earle’s career plunged into an abyss for four years.
‘I was 31 when Guitar Town came out, and I understand that there were a lot of misconceptions about me at that time; I was around but just not making records,’ he says today.
Earle rumbled back into action around 1994, since when he’s worked like a man possessed. Nothing, it seems, is beyond his ability. Apart from David Bowie, it’s difficult to think of many artists who’ve successfully pulled off so many twists and turns in their career: 15 albums, including a bluegrass album with the Del McCoury band, acting in the acclaimed Treme HBO television series, a play, collections of short stories, taking time out to consistently champion the cause of the dispossessed – Earle is an outspoken critic of capital punishment – and, finally, we reach his new release, Terraplane, which finds him knee-deep in the blues. Rather than attempting to recreate hoary blues songs with new lyrics, while there’s more than an occasional nod to the glory days of Chess Records glory and Howling Wolf, the blues remains an anchor rather than a template.
Talking to Steve Earle is a treat. You know immediately that he’s a man unlikely to be ever lost for words and someone who probably won’t pull any punches. He began by explaining just how the album came about.
‘I’ve written blues songs before like ‘South Nashville Blues’, but never thought I was very good at coming up with them. And I’m way more comfortable on the acoustic side of playing guitar than the electric,’ he admits. ‘I saw Mance Lipscombe and Lightning Hopkins several times when I lived in Houston, and I’ve played fingerstyle blues for years; the electric thing is a little more intimidating. But I’m from Texas, and there isn’t a Los Angeles shuffle or a New York shuffle, but there is a Chicago shuffle and there is a Texas shuffle. I know the bar is really high, I grew up seeing Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and ZZ Top. Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan are my contemporaries; to try and enter their realm is intimidating, especially playing harp which I’ve edged towards on a couple of songs. Chris Masterton, who plays guitar in my band, cut his teeth on this stuff, and we began playing blues organically on sound checks with me playing harp and putting it through an amp. I wrote a couple of songs based around what we’d been jamming, wrote a couple more and thought we’d make a blues record. Just like the bluegrass record with Del McCoury, what I was trying to do was to write new blues songs based on records I grew up listening to: Howling Wolf, the first ZZ Top record, and Canned Heat. I heard all those bands about the same time when I was a kid, and was immediately drawn to the Chess records.’
And as much as Steve Earle is the singer and songwriter, Terraplane Blues is very much a band album. There’s also a pleasing absence of overblown solos.
‘The thing about guitar players and harmonica players playing long extended solos now, something that we’ve become used to, comes from live performance; that whole 60s mentality of bands jamming. But the original records were pop records and they were just two minutes and 30 seconds long and played on jukeboxes. Those records were made short on purpose so people have to keep putting money in the machine! That’s what the art form is, and because I’m a songwriter, I naturally returned to that sensibility when I wrote these songs.’
On ‘You’re The Best Lover’, you and the band do sound as though you might have been listening to some Howling Wolf outtakes… ‘Well, that’s me trying to do that and, arguably, fairly successfully,’ Steve admits. ‘I really like the way that track feels, and there’s no doubt that Howling Wolf is the core. The records he made are really great sounding, and they were also good songs. The Chess brothers had a way of recording that was very unusual, and sonically they were the only records cut in the States that were close to the records made in Britain at that time.’
For the uninitiated, the Terraplane was a very desirable automobile manufactured during the 1930s by the Hudson Motor Car Company of Detroit. Robert Johnson famously wrote a song about the car, and its name crops up time and time again on blues records. But how much did Steve buy into the whole blues mythology?
‘I do buy into the mythology but it is exactly that – mythology,’ he asserts. ‘But I reckon the crossroads legend has as much to do with Robert Johnson being so good as anything to do with the devil! The reality was that he was better than anyone else out there, and the reason he was better than anyone else was because he was writing songs – great original songs. He didn’t just recycle verses from other blues songs, which is what a lot of the other guys did; he was coming up with stuff that was completely new – and that’s always difficult. People once said pretty bad things about Bob Dylan. He pissed everybody off when he was playing in Greenwich Village because he was playing 100-year-old songs he’d stolen from other people’s record collections. But he wasn’t the only person doing that; Tom Paxton, David Blue, and all those guys started writing songs about the same time; it was a spontaneous thing, but Bob was way better than anyone else. The two most misused words in the English language are awesome and genius – and brilliant in Britain,’ he laughs. ‘But what genius really means is doing something so well that it’s doing something that’s never been done before, and Robert Johnson was that. But I’m a writer, so I like the legend.’
‘When people start to get sociological about those times, they don’t always get the fact that the life of a black man in Mississippi wasn’t the same as that of a white man. It was a different thing with a separate concept of the devil, almost like the idea that you’re going to hell anyway. Jerry Lee Lewis said you can go to heaven – or you can play rock and roll.’
Dating back to the days when he was hanging out with the Pogues, Steve has spent a lot of time living in Ireland. It’s a place he clearly loves, not least because of the traditional music. He once said that he felt his body was tuned in fifths rather than thirds…
‘Well, everything that’s not the blues comes from Scotland or Ireland; when you look at folk music, they’re the two things going on. Rock and roll has always had that combination of influences, and from the beginning it’s been a very natural thing in my music. Everything I’ve ever recorded has been in G or Ab because when I need to change key, I just move the capo and play the same shapes. I know my limitations as a guitar player, but I also know the kind of sound I’ve always wanted to get; the G chord is the one that does it for me with its intervals. When I play my songs, there’s at least one finger that never moves, one note that stays constant, and that’s really all that scary modal stuff which comes from Scotland. And when I play the banjo, I only play it in sad, depressing tunings – double C and G – the kind of stuff that scares the sheep! And who knows where it came from before? No one knows exactly who the Celts were, and there are no really native Scottish or Irish instruments as they’re all adopted. The pipes come from Spain, it’s been pretty much proven, and so the blues is a strange one. I don’t know how you arrive at that from Africa with seventh chords and ninth chords, they don’t exist in that Celtic strain of music. Then put them together and you get Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison,’ he says.
For his songwriting, Steve chooses his artist edition C.F. Martin & Co. M-21. ‘I write on whatever’s at hand, and it’s usually my M-21 because that’s what I use on the road, and I’m on the road more than anywhere else,’ he says. ‘I wrote this whole record on the road when I backpacked around Europe for five weeks, but if I’m at home I have a choice and I’ll get a different guitar out. Sometimes I’ll find that there’s a song in a guitar I haven’t used in a while.’
Given his admiration for Townes Van Zandt and the tangled history he shares – Steve once had a sticker printed stating “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that” it can’t be easy living in his shadow?
‘It’s not intimidating and it is a high bar, but whatever I may have said in print, I didn’t really believe that sticker,’ he laughs. ‘We’re all competing with Bob Dylan – he invented the job and the rest of us have been struggling with it ever since. When I got to Nashville in 1975, we were only talking about two albums: Elite Hotel by Emmy Lou Harris, and Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. That was the best Dylan record in a long time and it’s still my favourite. But Townes was great, had a gorgeous voice and was a stunning solo artist. Stevie Goodman was incredible; he the most badass solo acoustic guitar performer that I ever saw in my life. Now the pressure is on the few people left of my age that are still doing it, to do the best they can – but Dylan puts as much pressure on me as he ever did.’
Steve Earle’s new album Terraplane is out now on New West Records.