Steve Earle leaves comfort zone

Jeffrey B. Remz, October 2007

Steve Earle keeps moving. If it's not physically, it's musically. After 33 years living in Nashville, the outspoken, sometimes controversial singer/songwriter with the Texas twang in his voice split Nashville for the Big Apple two years ago.

"Sunset in my mirror pedal on the floor/Bound for New York City and I won't be back no more/...boys won't see me around/Goodbye Guitar Town," sings Earle on "Tennessee Blues," the lead-off song of his new disc, "Washington Square Serenade," which hit streets in late September on New West Records.

Living in New York City has had its effect on Earle, who writes and sings about it on with sounds of country, blues, bluegrass, a touch of hip hop beats and rootsy sounds.

New York informs Earle's music and writing through its melting pot population, architecture and neighborhoods.

New York City isn't exactly Nashville North, and while Earle has been skewered in the past over some of his liberal leaning songs, particularly "John Walker Blues" - he isn't afraid to make it clear where he stands on immigration and other issues - he also is willing to take a back seat for the most part politically on his new disc after hitting it hard on "Just An American Boy" and "The Revolution Starts Now" and let others carry the torch for a bit anyway.

Earle, 52, has reached a comfort level in his career, which also includes acting and writing, clearly perceiving himself as an artist who can live comfortably enough without sacrificing his core beliefs for the almighty dollar. And he even gets downright personal about being in love.

"I originally I thought this'd be a part time residence, and it didn't turn out that way," says Earle in a telephone interview from New York where he lives in a Greenwich Village apartment with his sixth wife and fellow singer Allison Moorer. "I don't know why I thought given the choice between in my downtime of hanging in Nashville...and New York City, that I would spend more time in (Nashville). It hasn't turned out that way."

"I've always spent a lot of time here," says Earle. "I've always felt very at home here...I'm a Yankees fan. I have been all my life. I didn't know you were supposed to hate Roger Maris."

"I've always loved New York. It started back four years when 'The Revolution Starts Now' was getting ready to come out. Danny Goldberg, who had Artemis Records...had been conspiring to get me to go move to New York for a long time. He and the label rented me an apartment a little further across on Bleecker from where I am now...for two months...while I was doing the press for 'The Revolution' and kicking off my Air America radio show and fucking with Republicans during the (2004) convention."

"By that time, I was pretty hooked. Then I married a girl with a job (Moorer, who he married about two years ago), and it became financially feasible. I needed to not be behind enemy lines. I needed to be able to walk outside and see a mixed race, same sex couple holding hands. It makes me comfortable as heterosexual and white as I am."

"I feel like I live in a neighborhood maybe for the first time in my life. People still sit on stoops around here...I literally live on the corner of the street where Bob Dylan is walking down the street of the (cover of) 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.'"

Earle certainly enjoys a reputation for owning a rebel streak. When he launched his career with "Guitar Town" in 1986, he rocked a bit with his country, scoring hits with the title and "Goodbye's All We Got Left to Say." He was the kind of person who seemingly operated outside the mainstream.

He lived in Nashville for 33 years until moving to New York, enduring many personal ups and downs including drug abuse, which landed him in jail in Tennessee.

Did Earle think he ever really fit in with the Nashville crowd?

"I feel like I fit in there back in the '70s before I was making records. There was sort of a subculture surrounding songwriters especially that were left of center who still got songs recorded by mainstream crunchy (singers). I played bass for Guy Clark. I came there by way of a circle of Townes Van Zant in Texas. We were basically folkies, and we were basically hippies, and we hung out with the bluegrass players. Probably...the common denominator was we were the people in Nashville who smoked pot."

"I was fine when I was home, but I wasn't home very much," says Earle.

Earle is palpably excited about being in New York, saying it was "absolutely everything that I thought it would be...the way I approach this is history's important to me and finding out where the body's are buried is important to me. I can give you a pretty good tour of the (Greenwich) Village as it relates to music. It's really really rich in music (and) the politics that interests me. 'Ten Days That Shook the World' was written two blocks from here. Dylan's first apartment was right up the street."

"The only bummer is I'm around the corner from the best guitar shop in New York, and that sets me back money wise" says Earle.

Living in New York also has impacted Earle several ways musically.

"The first effect was it separated me from studio I've been working in for 10 years. I got a ProTools gig," he says, referring to the software used to compose music.

"My pre-production on my last five or six records has basically been writing the songs and working them out with ' the band in sound check for the tour. This time, I pretty much wanted to keep everybody else's finger prints off of them until I got them finished...This time, I was going to make demos for the first time in years, but the demos turned into a record...There was some stuff I couldn't beat. There was that part of it - just working by myself in New York City and separated from my normal musical support system."

John King, one of the Dust Brothers, who works with the Beastie Boys, produced.

"I started with beats on my own because I thought I was making a demo at first. When I thought I was arriving at something that way, I thought who does it that way? One of the obvious choices especially with doing it with acoustic instruments, was the Dust Brothers. It was John on his own who called back."

What helped cement the deal was Earle's acting role on "The Wire," an HBO series on which Earle plays a recovering redneck.

"He was a big 'Wire' fan," says Earle of King. "We cut the track 'Way Down in the Hole' (a Tom Waits song that is the theme for the series), figuring out how it was going to work for both of us. I did a vocal and guitar to a clip. I sent it to John. We redid the vocals and guitar later when we (met). It was basically done on the Internet."

"I was looking for a producer to make the record. We had common ground where 'Wired' was concerned. When that worked, the worst that would come out of it was the track for 'Wire,' but it did work out. So, John made the record."

Earle's version will be this year's theme song for the show and also appears as the closing track on his CD.

Lyrically, "City of Immigrants" with its semi-tropical beat was clearly influenced by New York. A New York-based Brazilian band, Forro in the Dark, helped on the cut.

"I actually saw them for the first time in SXSW," he says referring to the annual Austin music fest.

"They were playing in my hotel, and by that time Lou Dobbs was irritating me sufficiently that I knew I was going to write something about the experience of living here." Dobbs is a CNN newsman, who has railed against liberalizing immigration laws.

"It just dawned me on how good it was for me to live in New York City as an American or a place like New York City at this point."

"City of Immigrants" makes it clear where Earle stands on the issue. "Livin' in a city of immigrants/I don't need to go travelin/Open my door and the world walks in/...livin' in a city that never sleeps/my heart keepin' time to a thousand beats/singin' in languages I don't speak."

"There is some ugly stuff out there that is not true," says Earle about the immigration issue. "It's a total red herring, diversionary tactic...They blame it on people who are coming across the border."

"Steve's Hammer (For Pete)" longs for the day when Earle can stop writing political songs. "But it's not completely serious song," says Earle. He sings,

"One of these days I'm gonna lay this hammer down/And I won't have to drag this weight around/When there ain't no hunger/And there ain't no pain/Then I won't have to swing this thing."

The "Pete" is folk singer Pete Seeger, still fighting the liberal fight in his late 80's.

"I'm a pretty politically involved person. I'll stay involved in the things that are important to me. I was somewhat self-conscious about the fact that things haven't changed that much in the last two records, but I'm never going to stop ...Someone else can step up to the fucking plate and...see what needs changing by the time I make the next record."

Earle is a steadfast opponent of U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. "The war continues, and we have to stop it...We have to determine that we're going to stop this. The immigration thing is part of the same ugly lie. It's just a lie to distract us and scare us and to keep us from what (the government is) doing."

"Yeah I'll stop writing political (songs)," Earle jokes, "Probably fucking never."

Earle doesn't get quite as political on "Washington Street Serenade" as he has previously.

Here, he sings joyously of love in "Days Aren't Long Enough" and "Sparkle and Shine." The former is written with Moorer, who is featured prominently on vocals. "This record is more personal. Therefore less overtly political than its two predecessors, but I had personal business I had to take care of artistically. Don't think it means I'm mellowing. It just means I'm in love with Allison Moorer and New York City, and that took up a lot of space on this record."

"I've always been sentimental. I just wasn't going to get soft."

Earle said what makes his love songs "connect with people are our similarities, not our differences. I'm always talking about chick songs, but chicks do dig them."

"Doing what I do, there's a lot of self consciousness I had to overcome a long time ago," says Earle, referring to writing about personal topics. "To do this well - at the level I do it where it really is art - it requires that you are a little forthcoming and you are forthcoming emotionally on behalf of some people in your audience that can't do it, for some reason are not equipped to do it. What my audience and I find out about each other is that our experiences at the core are the same."

"That's what art's for. Art is not an elective. We're the only the place in the world that does music and theatre and arts like that."

"We call them electives in school...The truth is they're sustenance. They're not electives...We make and consume art and both the making and the consumption of that art is necessary. It's a requirement just like food, just like air. It's something we have to have. It makes us more human than anything else. It's our common experience."

Married life is different for Earle this time around because he is married to a fellow performer. Moorer has her own recording career going and is best known for her song "A Soft Place to Fall" from the Robert Redford movie "The Horse Whisperer."

Moorer also did vocals on "Picture" with Kid Rock, which was released as a CD single. The only problem was Sheryl Crow also was involved in the project and her version with Kid Rock was the one that captured all of the airplay.

"We both had to learn to live with half of the space in the house taken up by another artist and their work," says Earle of he and Moorer. "Neither of us have done it before. We did it in New York City where we were living with a lot less space than we were used to. It was interesting at times. It was really good for me. Both of us lived with other people that weren't doing what we do. We had a tendency to forget that anyone else was making any art" (Moorer's first husband was songwriter Butch Primm).

Moorer and Earle have toured together pre- and post-marriage. "She started out touring as an opening act and as a member of the band for part of my show. Since then, what we've done for the most part is just the two of us traveling...We've done a lot of festivals in this three years. There hasn't been any full-time touring schedule, but I have to pay the rent."

"We've fallen into a rhythm with it. We did doing it. We travel on a bus and we usually stay in the bus...when we stay in North America. We take our dogs and a couple of bicycles. If we're headed towards the mountains, I take a couple of fly rods. We try to live as high a quality of lifestyle out there as we can."

Earle says touring together is "not about marketing. That's about staying married. We've both had the other result. As long as have been together, that's been about three years, we're been constantly tweaking our release schedules so we can tour together from now on."

Looking ahead, Earle expects to tour with Moorer in Europe and the U.S. in January when her new disc is about to drop. A DJ will join them onstage.

"We're going to start in Europe without the band," says Earle. Instead of a crew of 15, "more stuff" and resulting higher costs, "this time we're traveling lighter. It's one bus instead of two and a smaller crew, just the three of us on stage. We're going to go to Europe for a month, do a lot of Western Europe in January, and the U.S. will start the last week of February."

In the meantime, Earle is doing press and television. Now that may be considered standard for an artist, but Earle says he effectively was given the boot from TV for two years following his "John Walker's Blues" song about Walker, the so-called American Taliban citizen convicted of treason for aiding the Taliban.

"Nobody said anything," says Earle of his ban. "It's not been talked about, but I never failed to book most of the national television (shows) you think about for music, and then all of a sudden I didn't get any of it. I absolutely knew it was a possibility, and I think it was worth it. I'm glad to be able to be back and able to do it...If I feel like it's necessary (to write political songs again), then I will, but right now, this record, I'm probably not going to get on Lou Dobbs' show."

"I don't have any choice. I may occasionally alienate someone. The people that have bought every record that I've put out. I'm pretty proud of my fans. They're pretty smart. They'd be disappointed if I started worrying too much if I was going to get on television or not."

While the music marketplace is a difficult one for all, Earle doesn't seem worried about his own fate.

"I never made more than 3 grand in my life until I was 31. I hung in there. If you income average it out, I'm probably still upper middle class at best, but I'm totally okay with it. I've made a really good living, and I've done things the way I want to do it.

"I'm still doing it. I don't sell any less records than I did 10 years ago even with the decline in the music business. We have to find different ways to do it."

The one blip on the sales screen was "Transcendental Blues" (2000). "I usually can count on 100,000 records, and 'Transcendental' sold 150,000, 160,000. Artemis did a bunch of stuff on the front end that you can attribute to that figure...We decided that we tried it, and we didn't sell that many more records...You try it, and it's not like you never do something like that again...The result in terms of money was probably a complete wash but I did get a few people to buy Steve Earle records who don't normally, so that's always worth something."

"Downloading's never been my idea of a political issue because no one died, but I wasn't concerned about that, I always felt like always such excess in this business that we could lose a lot and still be okay. I want there to be money for young artists to continue making records. That's the important part."

When not worried about his music, Earle is also finishing a novel, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," about Hank Williams, a doctor and heroin addict, who performs abortions, and San Antonio. The book has been six years in the making.

Although pushed to do a novel by a Houghton Mifflin editor, Earle says, "for lifestyle reasons, (I was) resistant. It takes a long time...Short stories and plays are easier...It's been tough with the other stuff I do."

He also will produce a new Joan Baez disc and is working on a one-man show about Seeger.

Through it all, Earle maintains no regrets about much of anything.

"I have a lot of gratitude of what happened to me in Nashville. I don't know if it would have been better for me anywhere else...It's hard for me to regret much of anything because I really am lucky. I make an embarrassing amount of money doing something I really love doing, and I did it exactly the way I chose to do with zero compromise along the way. And I still made a living."

"The lesson to be learned from that is it's perfectly okay to do what you need to do to sell the maximum amount of records, but for people who are at a point in their lives about whether they want to make art or whether they want to make money, you can make a more than comfortable living making art, especially in this particular art form. If you make music in a way or any other kind of art in a way that people realize what you're putting into it and realize you've made that decision to make art for the sake of art, I believe there are enough people out there who will support you. There's a little bit of a leap of faith involved there."

For Earle, the idea of not staying in the same place carries over to his artistic career. "It's just trying to stay interested. Give me a reason to make a record. Otherwise, I don't want to hear the same record from me. I don't think the people who buy all my records want to hear the same record from me over and over again. There are some people who might...A body of work in a career is the people who came along for you for the ride, and I really appreciate that. If I don't sound interested, I'm going to get bored if I do the same thing over and over again. The audience will know I'm bored. This is totally about getting outside of my comfort zone."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •