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Earle shows his heart

By Jeffrey B. Remz, October 1997

A funny thing happened to musical survivor Steve Earle in recording "El Corazon."

But Earle ain't complaining either.

His last two critically praised albums - "Train A Comin'" and "I Feel Alright" - were generally acoustically based.

So, Earle thought he would make a few sonic changes going into the new disc, English for "The Heart."

"I thought before I started it that I was going to make just like a more electric, guitar rock record, which was probably a direct result of several shows with Neil Young on the last tour," Earle says in an interview from his record company in Nashville. "It didn't turn out that way."

Earle had not expected to be making an album so soon. he was immersed in writing a book of short stories and also had a multitude of duties in running E Squared Records, the company he co-owns with long-time cohort Jack Emerson.

But Warner Brothers Records, which distributes his albums, wanted another album. "The truth was I wasn't making a record yet," Earle says. "People depend on me for a living. People want to know when I was going to go out and tour, and I got a partner in this record label."

Earle still had it in mind to make one of his more rock-based discs instead of the country of the last two. As for Neil Young, Earle characterizes his shows as "the best Crazy Horse shows I've ever seen. They just really impressed me, but I was probably making the record for the wrong reason at that time in my head."

Earle isn't upset with the results of the 12 songs. "I ended up sort of gratified that it came out so differently than it was planned...I'm really proud of that."

"I'm okay with it," he says. "That sort of surprises me, but I think it's really cool. I'm prouder of this record than any I've ever made, and I don't have any I'm ashamed of."

"No matter," says Earle, calling the turn of events "sort of humbling and sort of fun at the same time (because) after all this time it can get totally and completely away from me and still turn out good."

Earle went to Ireland in March and April with the intent of writing a book of short stories. "I thought I would write some songs, but I thought I'd write more of the book," Earle says. "I figured I'd come back from Ireland and take a little while longer, and 'here's the book, and it's really cool.'""So, now I'm now going on the road again," says Earle, who beings touring with a date in Dublin, Ireland in early November.

Earle still is working on the short story collection. For Earle, there are similarities between writing stories and songs. "It doesn't really have anything to do with what I do when I make records," says Earle, while acknowledging, "It's the same creative process."

In fact, the book contains a short story, "Taneytown," the same title as a song on "El Corazon."

"It's the same character. It's much deeper in the story, more details in the story. I wrote the song, wrote the short story and rewrote the song." Emmylou Harris helps out on backing vocals as she has in the past for Earle.

He says he always has written characters in far greater detail than eventually appears in the song as a way of getting deeper into the subject matter.

The song - in the long tradition of Earle's story in song - is about a 22-year-old retarded man who sneaks away from home against his mother's wishes. He is accosted by white youths and within two lines, Earle sings, "But I had my old Barlow knife/I cant that boy and never did look back." The youth runs back home still free. On the way he dropped his knife, picked up by a boy, who was later hung.

Earle has always had an affinity for story songs. "The story songs come pretty easily to me," he says, adding, "I have a real natural sort of aptitude for them, so I'm always more impressed with (songs like) 'My Old Friend the Blues' and 'Valentine's Day.'" The latter is an out-and-out love song from his "Valentine's Day."

"They are journalism more than they are prose," Earle says of his story songs. "I'm less emotionally attached. I do the other things less often, and it's more work for me, so I'm impressed with it," he says laughing.

"I've gotten the impression that I don't apologize for much of anything any more," Earle says jokingly. "Not in this particular area of my life."

Well known for living life sometimes almost past the extreme, Earle is even taking to quitting smoking cigs. Yet again. "I've quit a jillion times. Just need to do it."

The disc is quite musically and lyrically diverse. The album starts with the lean sounding "Christmas in Washington," an indictment of politicians and the Nashville music scene, both repeated targets of Earle's, but also covers bluegrass with "I Still Carry You Around" and backing from the Del McCoury Band, "N.Y.C." with Seattle-based rock band The Supersuckers with whom Earle previously has recorded, helping out on the harsh sounding song, "Poison Lovers" with superb duet vocals from Siobhan Kennedy, the rocking "Here I Am" with 15-year-old son Justin blazing away on electric guitar and the closing "Ft. Worth Blues," an elegy to long-time friend and great influence, the late, seminal Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

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