February 21, 2000
Part 7 of 7
Well, we're at the end of the road folks. Monday night, we had class recital so Steve Earle could head out in time for the Wednesday Grammy ceremonies. He's up for best Bluegrass album (for The Mountain). Steve said he doubts he'll win it, but he's going to the reception anyway because he got two tickets and his girlfriend's daughter wants to see Britney Spears. Good luck on both counts ;-).
I was talking to some folks from the class last night and they said that Steve commented in a class that he has to be careful what he says because it ends up on the Internet. I'm not sure this was addressed to me, but it made me feel incredibly guilty. My only intent for these reports has been to clue in a bigger audience on what a small group of people have been fortunate enough to experience. I don't think I've said anything controversial here or anything that wasn't for public consumption, but if I did, all apologies. My intentions are good even if the execution is sloppy. So, with that said, here we go.
All three classes and some guests are together tonight for the first time. We're in the big hall (a 333 seat auditorium where Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson and other greats have played). I take a seat near the front. I'm sitting there, killing time. Steve walks by and says, "Hey man, how ya doin'?". He's friendly as always, and it seems he's actually gotten to know his students, at least their faces. How cool is that?
Class begins. Steve starts out by saying that tonight is about displaying original material that was written during the class time. The original intent of the class was to draw inspiration from the Folk Anthology and adapt material from it. We've got the room from 6:30 to 9 p.m. and about 30 people have signed up. Steve cautions, "This is gonna be a real cattle call... (the list) looks somewhat like the excerpts from the Ten Commandments"). He has the list and calls folks up in twos, one performs while the next to gets ready to play. To everyone's credit, it ends up going really smoothly.
Anybody willing to get up and play tunes in front of other people, especially in front of a pro like Steve, deserves a helluva lot of credit. Because I've been too busy, I haven't worked up anything (only about one third of the students have), so I sit and watch. The performers are an interesting mix of young and old, male and female, pro and amateur. Almost everyone plays guitar with the exception of one acapella performer, one spoken word piece, and a man who plays dobro. There is a decent mix of funny and serious material. There is strong material and weak material, some stuff works, some doesn't. Turn on the radio, play most albums,or hit an open mic night and you can say the same thing. But everyone has talent and it's uniformly impressive.
As people play, Steve looks on, checking the list, listening attentively, concentrating, laughing at the funny stuff, and commenting after the tunes. His patience is amazing.
Some of the stuff I really liked:
A guy in his mid 20s plays a dobro and sings a terrific tune that reminds me a bit of Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley". He starts out by saying he stole the melody from Steve Earle. After he's done Steve says, "I've been trying for a year to figure out where I stole that melody from, I know I stole it from somewhere." (people laugh).
A middle age man sings a polka -ish type song about a Mexican-Polish bandito. It's engaging, but then he sucker punches us with one of the funniest punch lines I've ever heard: "You just got your ass kicked by the bandit Stache Mendoza". Steve (and the rest of us) bursts into laughter.
There are some technical problems. The mike stand and music stand keep falling over and drifting. Steve jokes, "That gravity is a hell of a thing". Steve adjusts them and someone says, "It's not often you get Steve Earle as your guitar tech!"
A 40-ish pony tailed man does a topical tune. Since one of the reasons Steve was here was to work for the moratorium on the death penalty, the singer wrote a song about a man waiting to be executed. The song rides on a cool bluesy riff and has sharp lyrics. Really nice. Steve says, "Good tune, good riff." It is.
A woman in her early 20s with an absolutely gorgeous voice (sort of Sarah McLachlan crossed with the Indigo Girls) sings and plays guitar with quiet, understated brilliance. She makes it look absurdly easy.
So far, it's been good, but no one has really worked from the box. Three people from my class (Tuesday night) do tunes based on the box, and I think they work really well. One is adapted from "The Coo Coo Bird", one from "Boweavil Blues", and one from "John Hardy". This last song is done by an older gentleman who decided to write a folk tune about Jackie Robinson. He has a lot of lyrics and is a bit nervous and forgets some,but he pushes through. Steve sympathizes and says that it sucks when that happens and it used to happen a lot to him when he was on dope.
A guy is called up and says, "I don't have guitar." Steve says, "That's no excuse!". Someone lends him a guitar and he does a bluesy tune heavily based on "Sweet Home Chicago."
A guy in his late 20s adapts a Subdudes song and does a tune called "No Bridges" ("Because it doesn't have one."). It's a terrific tune and he's got a great Tom Waits type voice. Nice.
When the last performer is done, someone says "Steve, didn't you write one?" People laugh and Steve says he didn't have time, but he got half way through writing a banjo tune. We've got about 30 minutes left and everyone has performed, so we don't give up asking. He says, "I don't even have a guitar." People reach for theirs and say "That's no excuse!" So he agrees to do a tune.
Steve thanks everyone and says that everybody who performed "got it" and hopes that people learned something. He says he learned a lot and this has been one of the greatest experiences of his life. He hopes to be back, but it will be awhile because of the new album and the tour.
A woman lends him a cool old Martin guitar and a capo. Steve strums it and says, "Great guitar" (my friend jokes to me - "There's a guitar (she'll) never sell!"). Steve says he'll do a tune off the new record that he stole from a lot of places, including Dylan and Jimmy Rodgers. He launches into the upbeat tune, playing beautifully and delineating just how great the distance from talented to brilliant is. Man.
The first verse goes, "I'm thinking about giving up this ramblin' round/and hanging up my highway shoes/lately when I walk they make a hollow sound/and they carry me away from you". It sounds terrific, especially the verses that end: " I'm thinking about giving up this ramblin' 'round/and find my way back home to you" where Steve yells, "Back home to you!" or "Here I come!" after the verse. God knows how this is gonna end up on the record, but it sounds great like it is (though a nice wailing harmonica would work really well over it in parts). People applaud and Steve thanks us again. He says he'll be back up in Chicago and we may run into him around Chicago or the Old Town because his son is here.
Steve hangs around and folks ask him to sign CDs and magazines. He signs everything graciously. I took some pictures of him performing, and since I have the camera, I ask him if he'll take a picture with me. I have never done this, but you know, I think I need it for proof to myself that this actually happened. He says sure, and my friend takes my camera. Steve puts his hand on my shoulder and starts joking rapidly, "Here he is - known him for years - the guy who taught me everything I know about show business...." I start laughing, realizing the absurdity of taking pictures with celebrities and the generosity of him taking the time to do this for an almost compete stranger. The shutter snaps. I don't have the film developed yet, but I'm sure there's a big smile on my damn fool face. He's a helluva guy.
Driving home, I think how strange it's going to be to NOT see Steve Earle next week in class. Then I think what an odd thought THAT is.
Thanks for hanging in there.