Week 6
Steve Earle on Steve Earle

Last weekend in Chicago there was a several minute piece on PBS about Steve Earle and the class at Old Town School of Folk Music. We're killing time before class (Steve is tuning and warming up on guitar with a Mance Lipscomb song). I asked him how he like the piece. He said he didn't see it yet. I told him it was pretty good, except for the part with a WXRT (local radio) DJ where they say how much they love Steve Earle and support him. A few weeks ago, Steve was complaining about how the programmer for the station hates him and they are resistant to playing his records now. He cracks that the programmer is one of those alternative types that doesn't like anything but Paul Westerberg. I said, "I like Paul Westerberg a lot, but that's not all I like." Steve says, "I like Paul Westerberg too..when he finishes his songs!"

Since he's got the guitar on and someone asked me to ask him, I asked if he could show us what the heck he's doing on 'Hard Core Troubadour'. He laughs and says sure, holds the guitar about a foot from my face and says, "Here it is", and does the riff a couple times. He says, "It's 'Brown Eyed Girl'. I couldn't play the intro, so that's how it ended up!"

Someone asks about his guitar, and he says it's a Roy Smeck reissue of a guitar Gibson made in the '30s. He then goes into a lengthy list of guitars he uses for touring, saying the guitars for solo tours are usually the Gibson reissue and jumbos. With a full band he uses Chet Atkins guitars. For the bluegrass tour, he used early 70s D-28s, Santa Cruz slot heads, John Dylan custom made slot head, and a $49 Harmony Sovereign that the manager of Son Volt got for him.

Early Days
Steve was in Austin a lot, but the combination of weather, cheap dope, and pretty girls was too distracting, so he decided to head to Nashville. His efforts at writing accessible songs yielded tunes that people said were "too country", so he decided to change gears a bit. In his late 20s, he got an electric guitar and formed a rockabilly band. He also started listening to early Sun records material and met up with Jason Ringenberg who had just formed Jason and the Nashville Scorchers . He cut a four track , 7 inch EP and started touring the I-40 circuit between Nashville and Texas. One of the songs he recorded was "The Devil's Right Hand" which was written in Mexico around 1978. They released two singles, one charted at about 66, the other died and so did the rockabilly band. But it was promising enough that they suggested he do another record with a different producer. Out of the list of producers, he wanted to work with Emory Gordy Jr. They released two singles, one charted at about 68 and the other one died.

Guitar Town

Steve was 31 and decided if he was going to make another record, he wanted to write an album where the songs were designed to work together. He ended up writing what would become "Guitar Town" in several locations over 11 months. Steve approaches the CD player and says that before he wrote the first song, he went to Tennessee to a big basketball arena where he heard something that inspired him. He punches play and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" booms out. He was impressed because Bruce turned a 20,000 seat arena into a coffee house. That was in November. He drove from Nashville to Houston around Christmas and wrote the song "Guitar Town" in his head on the drive home. He wrote it down when he got to his parents' house and finished it on his sister's guitar which she got for Christmas that year. He's got the guitar around his neck and kicks out the first several verses of "Guitar Town".

Steve said "Born in the USA" really influenced the way he sequenced the album. He wrote "Guitar Town" to start the album and "Down the Road" to finish the album and he does a few acapella verses of it. He says,"The reason I did it was this", as he hits play on the CD and plays Springsteen's "My Home Town". Steve says "Someday" wouldn't exist without "My Home Town" and was inspired by his travels through small towns on tour. He also claims "Working on the Highway" influenced songs on both "Guitar Town" and "Exit Zero". Later he says that "Little Rock N Roller" came from earlier "Thunder Road" with the vibe lifted from the intro piano line to Springsteen's song.

They started touring as a country act, but when they hit Chicago, WXRT (a modern rock station) was playing the album 10 tracks deep. Chicago was his biggest market until "The Mountain" came out. Steve only had one album of material, plus a few songs that he was working on for "Exit 0". That night at a concert at Park West, they played the entire album, the new tracks, some covers including Springsteen's "State Trooper" from "Nebraska" (which we talked about in the Springsteen class a couple weeks back and which is collected on the excellent Steve Earle compilation album "Ain't Ever Satisfied"). For the third encore, he had to go out solo because he ran out of material. He told the audience that his dreams had come true. Spurred by this success in rock venues, they decided to tour as a rock group.

Exit 0

The follow up to "Guitar Town" was "Exit 0". The title comes from American highway markers. If you have a marker at a state line, it's possible to have an exit 0. Steve said he ran into the phenomenon for the first time on the New Mexico/Arizona border and he told the bus driver "Whoa, whoa pull over THIS IS IT!" He laughs, "We almost lost my brother that night, it's a long story." "The idea was that we were living in a place that was between places and I was very, very comfortable with it for a lot of years." He starts strumming the guitar and singing "No. 29". He says that a lot of people relate that song to "Glory Days" but it was still more the vibe of "My Home Town". He began touring more and working out new songs on the road and at soundchecks became a key part of how his songwriting developed.

He says the centerpiece of Exit 0 is "I Ain't Ever Satisfied". The band began to gel and become "his band". He was writing on guitar and said a lot of his melodies come from the false bass lines you get when you change chords or from fingerpicking patterns. He likes to keep some notes in the chord that never move. Steve starts strumming and sings a few verses of "I Ain't Ever Satisfied". The song came from a tune he heard on WXRT and started playing at sound checks. He does a few chords , fires up a CD, and I grin as the Call's classic "The Walls Come Down" bounces out. Steve sings along under his breath. "That's Garth Hudson playing organ on the track!". Steve was playing the riff and one day he wasn't looking, the chord structure changed slightly, and out came the tune. Playing with his band was really influencing his writing. He was putting steel guitar in the tunes because Bucky Baxter was there and it took him a while to realize that he didn't have to do that.

A big seven piece band was "an E Street Band thing, no doubt." In later years, he's kept the band sparse (4 pieces) because it lets the audience fill in the gaps and "It gives me an excuse to play louder!."

He wouldn't realize until "Copperhead Road" that he might have to look outside his band for inspiration and influence.

Next up: Composing, drugs, jail, inspiration, movies and side projects


Steve talks a little bit more about how he composes. He said he either writes on guitar or mandolin, but doesn't like using flatpicks. The melodies he gets out of mandolin are very different from guitar tracks. Alternate tunings are a great way to jumpstart the creative process and his uptempo melodies come from fingerpicking patterns. He plays a pretty melody that he said he had for years without having any words for it until he was contacted by Jimmy Iovine to write a song for Maria Mckee. The tune was never released, so he rerecorded it as a more agressive version on "The Hard Way" flatpick on electric 12 string

He starts fingerpicking a pattern that he says he developed during "The Hard Way" because it was sort of lonesome sounding and he was lonely a lot. Then, he got locked up in prison and didn't have a guitar ("there are no guitars in jail, that's just in the movies") . When he got into treatment, he was allowed to have a Yamaha guitar for an hour a day and the first thing he started playing was what evolved into "Goodbye" (which showed up on the triumphant album " Train A Comin' ".) He plays most of the tune, then says, "That came from this", and plays several verses of Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You". "It's really 'If I Needed You', sideways."

Another conscious lift is "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues" from "The Mountain" which came from Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and the end of Bob Dylan's "Townstone Blues". "Bob stole that, so I didn't have anything to worry about."

I Feel Alright

Steve holds up "I Feel Alright" and says he had to go out and buy a copy of his record this week because he couldn't remember the lyrics. He plays "You're Still Standin' There" and now that we've been on this journey together for 6 weeks, it immediately clicks that it's a straight lift from Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" (from which Steve contends Springsteen lifted "Blinded by the Light"). He plays Dylan's tune and sure enough, it's obvious. Steve says he could have stolen it from Bruce, but he stole it from Dylan. Actually, he says he probably stole it from the Byrds version of the tune because it's in 4/4 instead of 3/4 time.

When this happens, he says he goes through a process of "is this too close, does this song have a reason to exist even though the melody is close to another song, it's not note for note, it has a chorus of its own that separates it". Sometimes you might discover you've lifted something and have to change a note or two. And ultimately it comes down to whether the song works or not.

Ben McCulloch

Steve starts playing "Ben McCulloch", shifts slightly, and says, "that came from this" and plays a couple verses of Townes' " Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud". He goes into a bit of the background of Civil War history, Michael Sharra's book "The Killer Angels" and it's influence on the tune "Dixieland" from "The Mountain" as well.

Copperhead Road

This came from a news item about a woman in her 70s who was arrested for growing huge quantities of marijuana in North Carolina. Her family had been moonshiners for generations and her boys came back from Vietnam with sack of Hawaiian seed they picked up on leave between tours of duty. He jokes, "It's all about the revenuers, it's all about the 'guvment' to us". He adds that that area of North Carolina is a strange part of the world shot through with car chop shops, marijuana and moonshiners.


Projects are great because they give a deadline and structure. The best experience he had was with "Dead Man Walking" when Tim Robbins sent him a rough cut and hoped it might inspire something. "That was the understatement of the century." "Ellis Unit One" came out of the movie, inspired by a scene of a guard's crisis of conscience.

"Outlaw's Honeymoon" was written for "Niagara, Niagara" for a scene where the actors are shooting at cans in a junkyard. The producers loved the song, but they wanted all the publishing. Steve joked, "I need that money. My ex-wives need that money!" So you can play the movie and cue up "The Mountain" for yourself.

One of his favorite songs. "Me and the Eagle" was written for "The Horse Whisperer." Steve said he usually doesn't write tunes for movies he hasn't seen a cut of, but he was a fan of Robert Redford and thought he would pull it off. Unfortunately, the film didn't really turn out, but the music still stands.

Another unique opportunity in Chicago is that we have over 145 theater companies and there are opportunities to write for them. Steve said he would love to do it, but he doesn't have the time.

Closing, Steve says he hopes this has all made sense. He wanted to get across that everybody steals from others and it's okay, but you have to learn how to do it to make it art. There are only so many sequences and melodies that exist and if you accidentally use one, that's not necessarily a reason to throw out a song.

He's hoping to come back and do another class, maybe one that's a bit more nuts and bolts, but it will be awhile because of the new album and the new tour. Next week is recital where we are supposed to show what we've learned. It will be interesting to see how it all comes together.

Thanks for hanging in there, it's almost over.

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