Steve Earle – The Soul of a Man
The hardcore troubadour has released a tribute to fellow Texan songwriting great Guy Clark but in this free-wheeling interview, he'd just as soon discuss politics, coal mining, the Yankees, and his deep love of Massey Hall. Photo: Bill King.
By Bill King
Steve Earle is one complicated artist. Few in any profession stand behind their words; as words carry weight and are moving and powerful. During the dark centuries, words got you shackled and beheaded. During civilized times - imprisoned.
March 10, 2003, Natalie Maines was introducing the Dixie Chicks' new single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” and said, “Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." This was during the build-up and war with Iraq. Bush and company had fabricated a story that led to the invasion that is to this day costing veterans of the eight-year conflict and eighteen years in neighboring Afghanistan - twenty lives a day lost to military suicides. Truth has a way of punishing those who receive and deliver first.
The trio of soul-connected Texas songwriters, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark wrote with empathy - a visual eye and open heart. Their words speak to certain truths about us all yet the most politically motivated is singer/songwriter Steve Earle. Earle stretches in this interview covering American history, the working man and economic dissatisfaction. The economy is growing and the bulk of the profits flowing into the hands of a rare few families – all connected by history. This is how Earle sees it.
Each dawn as we rise, lord we know all too well,
We face only one thing – a pit filled with hell.
To scratch out a living the best that we can,
But deep in the heart, lies the soul of a man.
With black covered faces, and hard calloused hands,
We work the dark tunnels, unable to stand.
To labour and toil as we harvest the coals,
We silently pray “Lord, please harvest our souls.”
The Coal Miners prayer: W. Calvert
Bill King: I’m guessing the album was a long time coming - getting to the songs of Guy Clark.
Steve Earle: I probably thought about it before he passed away but didn't want to think about thinking about it. I didn't want to admit I was thinking about it because he had cancer for a long time. Like ten years or so. I guess in the back of my mind, someday I'd have to make a record of Guy Clark songs because I'd made a record of Townes Van Zandt songs and didn't want to run into that motherfucker on the other side having made the Townes record and not his. I chose to do it now because I have another record that I'm already kind of writing, songs for that I want to come out in 2020. It facilitates that.
The process of writing – do you need to clear time for this?
If I had a gun to my head, I could have dropped everything. After I finished writing the songs for Outlaw I started writing another record. I decided 'OK I'm going to go ahead and make this record and it's way more political and it's not about preaching to the choir record and saying its aimed at speaking to and hopefully if I do it right, in some cases for people that maybe voted for Donald Trump, but didn't have to.' It didn't have to be that way. And I think, I've made the preaching to the choir a record twice and I don't have any regrets about that, but I think that we're in trouble and I think we need a solution and I think what I can contribute to that is I've made very political records that maybe people didn't recognize spoke to exactly those people. Copperhead Road spoke to the same kind of people that voted for Donald Trump. I know how to reset an audience.
How do you communicate with them?
You’re thinking they're stupid?
I grew up in this region of America, and don’t think that at all.
I grew up where I grew up too, but I'm also a very NPR person and I'm unapologetic about that. But the problem is, very, very powerful people, this is not just happening here, it's happening all over the world and it's a result of very powerful people who are profiting more and more every year the more divided that people in the middle and people at the bottom are. I'm sorry but it's Marx 101. You know they use the bourgeoisie to manipulate the lower class, to control the lower class, and the way you do that is by convincing the middle classes that if they do the right things they get to be in the upper echelon and they never really will. The most powerful people in the world have always been the most powerful people in the world.
Mexico, whoever is in charge in Mexico, the same five families have controlled generations since the Spanish controlled Mexico. Those things don't change. The whole point of government and the whole point of democracy is to try to counterbalance that. The struggles never end, and you're just supposed to keep fighting it. I think that frustrates people. I think the way that you do it is through empathy.
The job of songwriting is empathy. That's why songs work in some situations - the kind of songs I write are literature. Bob Dylan made sure of that before I came along so that's what I aspire to. I never aspired to any other kind of songwriting. There's something about a melody that will make people assimilate things that they wouldn't assimilate otherwise. And the idea that being able to speak in a voice that they understand makes a difference too. It's the same information.
The heart of my record is the idea that especially West Virginia is kind of, pardon the pun, the ‘canary in the coal mine’ because the outsiders think everybody in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump, because everybody in West Virginia makes their living in coal. That's not true simply because one in 1000 people in the areas where there are coal mines in West Virginia make a living at coal. Everybody else is strung out on Oxycontin and unemployed, and that's the way that it is. But the only people they see are people that work in coal. All they're protecting is a dream - they're not even protecting their job. It's a matter of reaching those people and in the most unionized place in the United States.
West Virginia right up until the '80s, the coal mines were all union and there were several active mines there. Kentucky was already shut down and those mines were considered to be fire. The difference is the coal there. In West Virginia, anthracite coal is high quality coal and used for making steel. Upper Big Branch, that mine that Don Blankenship founded which is what this piece is about I'm writing - the core of these songs for a theater piece in Public Theater is an anthracite mine; high quality steelmaking coal. So, where's that coal going? Where's the market? China. We don't make steel.
That's what kept it going in a very small area and a very few jobs. Twenty-five guys died that day. A full-blown high output longwall automated mine, a big machine the size of this room roughly that goes like a cheese slicer down the wall and cuts into the face of coal and it all drops on a conveyor belt and is carried out. They let methane build up behind it because they didn't have the air right. As the miners said, they didn't have the balance of air piped in from the outside and the air that was building up there and coal when you cut into it makes methane. It blew up and every miner in there knew it was gonna happen. Some big guys quit. Some guys talked about it to their wives - that's a lot of what the show is about.
It's only twenty-five guys that even had a job. And why? Automation and see that's the thing - that's what happened to unions in the United States. It wasn't corruption; it was strictly automation. Exactly. That's where the blue-collar jobs have gone.
How do you convince people these jobs will never return and that technology is paving the way to the future? How do you get people to tap into their creativity and ingenuity?
First place, you have to be like every other fucking developed country in the world and you have to realize unions were accepted as a part of democracy a long time ago in those other parts of the world so when automation came along, what happened? We were anti-union to begin with. We resisted as much as we could. The depression was a glitch and we basically kind of had to surrender to the unions to a certain extent and create some socialism. And then very powerful people said, OK they can't stop us now - let's start taking it apart brick by brick as time goes on and they've done it and they're finally there. But the fact of the matter, it was strictly losing jobs to automation, and we didn't do anything about that. Our unions lost power simply because you have twenty-five guys instead of two hundred guys doing the jobs. And what happens? Less union members - the power of the union is diluted and that's all that happened. In every other country the union had some inherent power and they had a voice and they said OK what are we going to do with these people. Some places the solution was simply put him on the dole because there were no other jobs to give him. Some places they actually did retrain people and they haven't had the catastrophic drop in areas like industrial and mining areas that we have.
This right-wing thing - know the racism part of it and the immigration part of it is just the propaganda that keeps us at each other's throats. What's really happening has to do strictly with money with the very richest people wanting to pay what they want and get their taxes lowered every single election cycle and it's happening all over the world.
People in Europe see us, and we pay nothing into taxes compared to every place else in the world, and they want that too. A certain amount of it is socially ingrained, and these guys are finding out they're having a harder time getting rid of policies like Obamacare than they thought because now people have it and they're going to fight for it. You need to convince those people that Medicare and Obamacare are the same thing. “No, I'm against that Obamacare that's going to take my health care away but don’t take my Medicare away, hell no.” And they're the same thing. It's the same idea. Health care is a right rather than a privilege.
When you talk about coal mining you're talking about Appalachia and you're talking about this whole region of mountains the Irish, Welsh, the Scots, African-Americans settled and new music evolved from that. I can talk about my area around Louisville, Kentucky, and I can see the biggest influence for us in the 60s’ was guitarist Lonnie Mack. Every guitar player of my generation played like Lonnie Mack. I'm thinking your Texas thing, you guys are much like when Bob Dylan went to New York. He's bouncing songs and ideas off Dave Van Ronk and others. You had a great situation where you had your sound and all these guys around to bounce songs off and much of it was touched by the lay of the land.
I saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. I was lucky I got there just in time to see that. Guy used to go out to Mance’s house. He was one of those folkies in the '60s that went out there and sat at the house for hours and hours and listened to him tell stories and listen to him play. Townes did it some. Townes was around Lightnin’ more than Mance.
Chicago to Mississippi, that relationship's about work. It's about migrants. It's about people migrating from a place where they were always going to be treated badly simply because they weren't slaves anymore. They'd go to someplace where they weren't first class citizens but there were jobs. They could work in slaughterhouses. White people didn't want to work in the slaughterhouses. The blues, the records that we love, don't exist without that. It’s an accident, not everybody gets to play music for a living. Music is something that's carried along. It’s like a virus where it goes and becomes part of every culture and the culture is mixed together and some of the greatest music comes from that.
Mining is really important. The American labor movement's roots are in mining. The very first labor movement the United States began with miners mining and the labor movement was transplanted intact from England where the skilled miners were all English, the laborers were Welsh and Cornish, and then the second generation of miners - unskilled labor that came to those mountains up there, was largely Eastern European.
There used to be a great kosher deli in Knoxville, Tennessee, because of that. People don't realize they did not give freed slaves those jobs in mines. Those jobs were considered to be too good by the standard, even though you're working for the company - the pay was shitty and dangerous, and they were all white people that lived there, and these jobs and those cultures were separate. Black folks weren’t going to go down those coal mines. They did have some freedom yet made the decision that they were going to go north rather than go east and work in a fucking coal mine.
The choice of players?
It's my band and the best band I've ever had.
What was the session like?
It was done over five days for the whole record. No overdubs, just sit down and play. Like three, four tracks a day.
Choosing which songs of Clark’s to record: how did you pare it down?
Well, you know I had some anxiety going into this about disappointing some people and, finally, I said, fuck that. This is my Guy Clark record, if somebody else wants to say something about it then make your own Guy Clark record. I did the songs I was most emotionally connected to.
What is it about his lyrics that you relate to as a writer?
The detail. I learned that from him. It's really incredible. It's what he's better at than anybody. It’s like Raymond Carver, except Raymond Carver was always compressing time. A whole Raymond Carver short story could take place in a second. Guy was expanding time but he did it by making you feel in a very small number of words exactly what this room felt like so he could move on to the next room. It's the same technology supplied in a different way.
Do you still enjoy touring?
I love it. I've got a big change in my life gonna happen because we play the Grand Ole Opry on the 26th, and next day this tour opens a Jazz Fest. Then we're gonna shut down Labor Day and I'm not going to go back out on the road again until the following summer, and I'm only going to tour summertime from here on out. I've been touring too much because I kind of had to for financial reasons, but I'm through that now. I did two hundred shows last year - one hundred eighty the year before that. That's too many for anybody. I didn't do that when I was in my 20s because nobody gave a fuck. I didn't do it in my 30s, because I just didn't. It seemed like I was trying to kill myself, but I really loved it.
My little boy has autism and needs to be in school in New York. His mother doesn't want to live there, so she's gonna go on to Nashville, and he's going to be with her in the summertime and I'm going to tour in the summer and the rest of the year he's gonna be with me in New York. I'm gonna concentrate on theater music and other stuff and there'll still be a record probably every year and I'll go out and tour in the summer to support it and concentrate on North America. There'll be some North America and European tours.
What is it about theater that has your attention?
Michelangelo's Snow Man - there's a legend that when Medici wis in power at the time and kind of the height of Michelangelo's career, it snowed in Florence, which didn't happen very often, and this Medici Prince had Michelangelo make a sculpture in the snow. It was in Florence and didn't last very long and melted. It was said it was the greatest thing that he ever built and ever made but, you had to be there. Live theater is like that. It's a lot like my day job because the music business sort of forced me into this. Guy Clark told me songs aren’t finished until you play them for people. I was never writing songs for the recorded format - that was never the end all and be all for me. It was about that connection between an audience when I'm singing in the song and that immediate feedback and live theater does that in a way that film and television can as an actor or a writer. It's amazing and I see a lot of theater. That’s what I spend money on when I'm home - baseball and theater.
You catch the Yankees?
I'm Yankees all my life. That happened because we had no baseball until ’62. You were either a Yankee fan or a Dodgers fan. That's who you got on TV. Where you grew up, people probably became Cincinnati fans by the '70s because Marge Schott was the first person that figured out about the super-station idea of getting on UHF and broadcast to a way larger area. Then cable came along and she was the first one to get on cable, and then Ted Turner followed her and then WGN after that.
I was a Yankees fan. My granddad mustered out of the army in New York City and went back to Texas kicking and screaming to run the family hardware store when his stepdad died. I got my first transistor radio in 1961 to listen to the World Series.
That’s all we got as kids-the Yankees and Dodgers.
You know why? The game of the week had to take place in either Dodger Stadium or Yankee Stadium because they were the only two that were set up for television, period. It was Dizzy Dean, Pee Wee Reese and Yankee Stadium.
And the best commentary and sports analysts.
It was incredible. My grandad was about catchers. Yogi Berra was his guy, and my favorite players have always been catchers ever since I learned about the guys. Got my first transistor radio for the '61 World Series as a gift from him.
In our high school, we watched the World Series during classes.
They wouldn’t let us. We could bring a radio to school during the playoffs and the World Series.
I don't remember it being on TV at school. I can remember being allowed to listen to my radio.
How did you feel about getting killed off on the HBO series Treme?
It was it was a bummer in the sense that I was working with people that I worked with on The Wireand already had a connection to. In Treme, my part was much bigger, and I was there a lot more, plus it was New Orleans. I had spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans before but all of a sudden, the next two years I got to go every ten days anywhere between three days and two weeks when we were shooting episodes that I was in. I probably lost a lot of weight after they shot me in the face just because I wasn't getting my oyster “po boy” for a second meal every day.
When you're killed off in a television series people start being really nice to you. Writer David Simon is a friend of mine and he told everybody that he was going to tell me that I was killed on the show before the second season started. They wanted to tell the story of the violence in New Orleans upticking. It’s a violent city to begin with and the uptick after the storm - half the cops left and never came back.
They said we need a character that we make everybody care about enough and kill and won't fuck up our plans for all of these other characters. They put four or five names up on the board and then they decided mathematically through a lot of discussion that it needed to be me. That means it gets turned over to you and the writers that specialize in that. Somehow, David can't remember whether he sent the e-mail or it ended up my junk folder rather than come talk to me. I started getting hints from Lucia Micarelli who played Annie. She said that Nina Noble one of the producers, said, “I love working with Steve. You know something bad happens to Steve, right?”
A lot of people knew before I did. I got a call from her one day and the phone rings and Lisa says, “I just got the script; you want to know?” I said yes. She goes, you get shot in the face. It was one of those things I just kind of couldn't tell anybody, right. The night before it aired, I called my mother and told her, and she didn't watch. Wavy Gravy. I landed on the airplane somewhere the day after it aired and received this email from Wavy and he was bawling. “Why didn’t you tell me?” You can't tell anybody, you’ve signed a nondisclosure and you will never work again if you if you violate it. I didn't have a choice.
You're gonna see a lot of little Ontario dates this tour because Massey Hall is not open yet. Massey Hall is my favourite place to play in the world. Carnegie Hall is always an honour to play, and when you play solo it's stunning and sounds great; for acoustic music it sounds great, but they haven’t figured out how to kind of do it with rock bands. Bands with drums are tough in Carnegie Hall. Massey works for both things. I hope they don't fuck it up with their renovation. I understand it’s mostly backstage that they're doing, which needs work, no doubt about it. You know they'll do a good job. It’s not just a national treasure - it's like an international treasure - it's just like my favourite gig in the world.