Fiery and ornery folk singer-songwriter Steve Earle is raising hell again. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has followed his amazing journey during a music career that has included battles with the law, with drugs and with his inner demons.
This time, though, the “hardcore troubadour” is making a joyful noise and living the good life, settling down with wife No. 7, lovely and talented singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, while taking his music and message to the masses. But if you’re a registered Republican, you’d probably rather tell this candid political junkie where to go.
“Anybody who knows me, knows that I’m something somewhat to the left of a Democrat,” Earle said during a recent record store appearance in Denver. He’ll go back on the road beginning May 28 in Portsmouth, N.H., for a tour to promote his latest release, Townes, a well-received collection of songs written by his late friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt.
Earle's new record, which was released May 12, debuted last week at No. 19 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, the highest Top 200 debut in his career. It is also the highest position on the Top 200 chart for New West Records.
Earle, who just appeared on the season finale of 30 Rock, has taken the success in stride, though he recently told PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley, “It’s humbling. It hurts a singer-songwriter’s feelings a little bit when he makes a record that gets more attention definitely than the last record that I made, which is all my songs.”
But the fact that the songwriter was his teacher makes everything all right. “My son (Justin Townes Earle) is named after Townes,” Earle said.
As part of the promotional blitz, Earle made seven in-store appearances in major indie retailers in eight days this month, including one in front of an enthusiastic crowd of about 300 on May 15 at Twist & Shout in Denver. Many of those in attendance purchased the record in advance to get a wristband that assured them a place in line for a meet-and-greet with Earle (and an autograph) after the free show.
Earle, who is scheduled to perform on the Late Show with David Letterman on June 3, is planning to make another Colorado stop on this solo tour, though it's not currently listed on his itinerary. “It’ll be a little later in the year when I come back solo,” he said. “I’m going to wait till the rivers run off before I tour in the mountains. The fishing’s great.”
Townes, a 15-song set, features Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine/Street Sweeper Social Club/The Nightwatchman fame on electric guitar and includes backing vocals by Moorer on “Loretta” and “To Live Is To Fly.”
While the hour long set focused on Van Zandt songs from Townes, there were also a few of Earle’s own, including "Rich Man's War" and “Ft. Worth Blues.” And in between songs, the outspoken performer didn’t hesitate to offer his views, also free of charge.
Earle, still displaying a graying beard and shaggy but thinning hair that grew out of his appearances as a drug counselor on The Wire, said, “I’ve been talking about doing this (project) for a long time,” but moments in history such as 9/11 took precedence in his life as a concerned citizen, contemporary songwriter and notorious rabble rouser. Not to mention when, “the President of the United States would do something particularly stupid,” a remark that required no further identification for the applauding group of liberals Earle is known to attract.
In introducing Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” the widely popular song made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Earle said, “There was no doubt in my mind about what I was going to record first. This is like the first day in prison. You got to find the biggest guy on the yard and knock him the (bleep) out for taking your radio.”
Before performing the blues-infused “Brand New Companion,” Earle discussed Van Zandt’s affinity for the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins (along with poet Robert Frost), then knocked everyone’s socks off by wailing on the harmonica.
Earle also discussed the 2008 presidential election, proudly saying, “I did vote for Barack Obama and I haven’t regretted it for one single second so far. That doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with everything he’s said and done, but I do admire him for sticking to his guns at least on paper about what he promised and what he said he was going to do and he hasn’t used the excuse of the wrecked economy to not pay attention to anything else. … It’s all one big picture. And I’m impressed with that.
“That being said, I’ve never blamed what happened to us in the country completely and totally on the administration that was in power. This is a democracy … somewhat. And I think we have to take responsibility for that. And that means, it’s up to us to hold him to the promises he made to us in the election cycle that got us out in record numbers to vote for him.”
That soon segued into his performance of “Rich Man’s War,” a song off the rowdy album, The Revolution Starts Now, from 2005 with lyrics (“Jimmy joined the army ’cause he had no place to go / There ain’t nobody hirin’ ’round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico”) that remain relevant today.
“The first comments (Obama) made to me that attracted me to him was that he promised he’d get all these kids home from Iraq,” Earle said. “And he’s trying to do that; I really believe he’s trying, but he hasn’t done it yet. And my nephew is going (overseas) very, very soon. So it’s personal.”
Moving away from politics for a moment, the 54-year-old Earle (at left back in the day with Van Zandt) recalled the cherished time he spent with Van Zandt, the highly regarded country/folk artist who died in 1997 at age 52 after years of substance abuse. (Rent the excellent 2004 film Be Here to Love Me on DVD to see a compelling documentary of his life.)
“Most of the record was me and a guitar in my apartment in New York City and I recorded the songs solo and then I added all the other instruments later; and the reason for that was, this record for me was based on my memory of Townes performing these songs when I (at age 17) first met him as much as it was his records or any of his later performances.
“I found out I’m a lot more Townes Van Zandt than I thought I was. The way I play totally comes from Townes. It becomes more obvious to me every day that I go out and play these songs now. And I’ll be doing that for the next year. It’s been and will continue to be a really interesting journey.”
Regarding Van Zandt’s “Lungs,” Earle said, “This song I’ve been playing for longer than any of them on a regular basis. It’s the one that actually was altered the most by the time it became a record. Maybe because I’ve been playing it the longest and felt like I needed it to shake it up.”
Assisting in the makeover to the raucous recording of “Lungs” on Townes were the Dust Brothers’ John King, who produced and mixed it, and Morello on electric guitar.
On the sheet music after it was published, Earle said, “Townes had little notes of his own that said, ‘This song should be screamed.’ ”
What really got the Colorado audience yelling was Earle’s finale. He already has a strong fan base there, making numerous visits to the state over the years. His extensive 2008 tour with Moorer included a summer stop at the Boulder Theater in support of his-and-her records (his being Washington Square Serenade, hers the delightful Mockingbird, with cover treatments of songs by an amazing array of female artists such as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Jessi Colter and Gillian Welch).
Earle announced he would be returning to Colorado with the Bluegrass Dukes on July 25 at RockyGrass, the three-day outdoor festival in Lyons. See the complete lineup at bluegrass.com.
Then he ended this crowd-pleasing appearance with, appropriately enough, Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl.” But not before a little delay.
While experiencing a few problems tuning his instrument (“This guitar still thinks it’s a tree,” he said), Earle discussed his reasons for traveling light on this series of promotional appearances. “I only brought one (guitar) on this trip because I’m flying everywhere. I wanted to give Homeland Security a shot at one at a time. They broke this one, actually. This one’s already been repaired once and it’s only about six months old. … Those guys are sworn to protect us from other instruments, evidently.”
After another slight pause, he said, “This better be good, huh?”
Never a doubt. Twist & Shout owner Paul Epstein said of Earle on his store’s website: "He put every ounce of feeling and heart into every moment, singing with his eyes closed and kicking the wooden stage with his boots to punctuate songs (and knock over water bottles). It was magic. I have to say I think it might have been the best in-store ever."
• For more Steve Earle news, music and tour dates, go to his website or MySpace page.
• For more Earle photos and comments from Paul Epstein, go to twistandshout.com.
• Go to the New West Records website for a limited time to receive a free download of “To Live Is To Fly” from Townes.
See a brief clip of Steve Earle playing at Twist & Shout below: