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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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.