Steve Earle will tell you that he’s an outsider in country music, despite a wildly successful career—including a stop at Stagecoach on Friday, April 24.
At the age of 14, he ran away from home while in San Antonio, Texas, so he could follow his idol, Townes Van Zandt. In 1974, he moved to Nashville, where he began writing songs and playing bass for Guy Clark. He joined the music publishing company Dea and Carter and wrote hit songs for Johnny Lee and Carl Perkins. Eventually, Earle signed a seven-record deal with MCA Records. His Copperhead Road included a single, with the same name, about the Vietnam War; it would go on to be one of his biggest hits. Politics, broken relationships and historical perspectives are all common themes in Earle’s records, and he’s known for his left-wing political stances.
During a recent phone interview from Nashville, where he was rehearsing for his tour, he explained why he feels like an outsider in country music—which is one reason why he currently resides in New York City.
“My move to New York was because I needed Major League Baseball and live theater,” Earle said. “I also needed to be able to open my door, walk down the street and see a mixed-race same-sex couple holding hands and not be afraid, even as white and heterosexual as I am.
“Things have been pretty scary for the past few years or so. I still have my house in Nashville, and I’m standing in it right now, so I still have a presence here. I haven’t been played on country radio in a long, long time. There are a few bands that come from more of a bluegrass world that I share bills with all the time, but the mainstream country acts—I don’t even know who half of them are anymore.”
Before the Dixie Chicks were speaking out against George W. Bush, Steve Earle recorded albums that included protest anthems. Jerusalem in 2002 included a song called “John Walker’s Blues,” in reference to John Walker Lindh, an American national who was sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida. In 2004, he released The Revolution Starts Now, which included “Rich Man’s War.” The album earned him a Grammy.
“Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now are pretty much the same record. Jerusalem was my immediate post-Sept. 11 reaction,” he said. “I won my first Grammy for The Revolution Starts Now.
“I don’t expect everybody to be political. I was raised in an era where it was just what you did, and all of your songs can’t be about girls, even though I write more songs about girls than anything else, but I write about what’s going around me, and that was a pretty big thing going on around me at the time. I grew up during a war that was always on television, and before it was over with, I was almost drafted, but I wasn’t, because my lottery was the one that didn’t happen. I thought it was dangerous and more of the same. You have to be able to write a political song that isn’t just beating people over the head.”
While his songs are often controversial, they are always thought-provoking.
“People don’t care what I think; they care about what we have in common,” he said. “Sometimes, I have people who come up to me and say, ‘You changed my mind because of the songs you write,’ and that’s pretty fucking gratifying and worth any risks. I probably could have made much more money if I would have kept my mouth shut, but I’m completely OK with it. … I make plenty of money, and you can only spend so much. In my experience, ex-wives and lawyers get it all, anyway.”
Earle has devoted a lot of time to his stance against the death penalty. His correspondence with a prisoner on death row named Billy Austin became the subject of a song.
“Growing up in Texas, I was living north of Houston and close to Huntsville, where they started executing people again,” Earle said. “People started contacting me because they heard that song. I decided it was important, and it’s a movement that’s grown and gained momentum and is in the national debate again. A lot of people stood together and hung in there a long time ago, and we’re getting less and less willing to kill. The European Union has gotten together and decided we can’t have the lethal injection chemicals anymore.”
I mentioned to Earle that old killing methods such as the firing squad are being brought back as a result of a lack of lethal-injection drugs.
“That’s fucking good, because they’re going to find that harder to do. I witnessed an execution by lethal injection, and it looks painful to me. He didn’t move much, but he jolted hard enough on the first chemical that it knocked his glasses off. It’s suffocating people to death and collapsing your lungs. It’s got to hurt, man. I had 11 guys who I corresponded with, and five of them were in Texas, and I knew people who worked in that prison system. They had to quit because they couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
In 2011, Earle released his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The story features Hank Williams (and shares the name of a song of his) and centers on a morphine-addicted doctor who has lost his license and is performing back alley abortions around the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“It took a look time for me, because I had never done it before,” Earle said about his novel. “It was just historical interest in Hank Williams and that story about the guy traveling with him when he died that wasn’t really a doctor. I already had this idea of why a real doctor would do that and would claim to be able to treat alcoholics with a drug like that. I was there at the airport when Kennedy landed the day before he was assassinated; I was 8 years old. My father was an air-traffic controller, and he called my mother and said, ‘Get Steve out of school and bring him down here. because President Kennedy is going to land at 1 o’clock,’ so we went. It’s about Roe v. Wade; it’s about the Kennedy assassination; and it’s about Hank Williams, and all those things interest me.”
Earle released his latest album, Terraplane back in February. Per usual, it rocketed up the Billboard charts, reaching No. 3 on the Country chart and No. 39 on the Billboard 200—even without the help of mainstream country radio. He explained his approach to Terraplane and his desire to venture into the blues.
“I’ve never written blues songs before, and it’s sort of a challenge to write something sometimes as you get older and you’ve covered a lot of territory. The best way I can explain it is it’s like you’ve been coloring with a 32-color box of crayons, and you limit yourself to 8. There’s a jolt that comes from that, and you have to work a little harder. That’s what working within a relatively limited format like the blues feels like.”
In 2013, Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, played Stagecoach; this will be the first Stagecoach appearance for Steve Earle. He said it’s been something he’s been meaning to do for a while.
“We’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve never played that festival before, so I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “There are some people in my audience I have something in common with, and Justin is one of those people, even though Justin likes to think the audience he has is completely different than mine. They overlap a lot more than he’d like to admit. We got an offer last year, and we were already committed to Australia. We always go to Australia in April, and next year in April, I’ll be in Australia again.”