Steve Earle: Hardcore Troubador Page 3

"This City" is the album's built-in hit—it played over the closing credits of the 2010 season finale of Treme, and was nominated for both an Emmy (it lost to Randy Newman's "When I'm Gone," from Monk) and a Grammy (losing to Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett's "The Weary Kind," from Crazy Heart). Named for a neighborhood in New Orleans, the much-acclaimed HBO series chronicles the music and sociology of New Orleans post-Katrina. In Treme, which is produced by David Simon, who produced him in another HBO series, The Wire, Earle plays a street musician named Harley Watt. Earle says that in Treme's second season, which was being shot, on and off, when this interview took place, Harley will play a more prominent role, appearing in six of the 11 episodes. Is the singer-songwriter with no formal acting training just playing himself?

"To some extent. Me playing Walon [in The Wire] was more Steve playing Steve than me playing Harley. Harley is me if I'd never gotten a record deal. And I get to play music. There was no effort to do what Walon did, 'cause Walon was a recovering redneck addict, and that was really, really easy. That was written by people with some knowledge of 12-step programs, and when it wasn't, I got to say, 'Hey, that would never happen,' and help shape the character, and so I learned a lot. And I dig doin' it.

"There's a scene that I shot last week that David [Simon] asked me to write the framework for the scene, because it's basically a songwriting lesson based on a John Hiatt song. [Simon] came up with what song he wanted it to be and asked me if that was a song I thought was worthy. I said, 'Absolutely!'"

A Texas native who lived for many years in Nashville, where he still owns a house, Earle has lived in Manhattan's West Village since 2000. Even more than his new acting experiences absorbing the NOLA mojo, his time in New York has become perhaps the most primal (to use his word) influence on his music. He was going out to play "hooky" after our interview by going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an acclaimed exhibition of guitars, Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. In a sign that Earle has become a true New York musician, he, Moorer, and their new son, John Henry, now also have a country house in Woodstock, New York, the supremely artsy town famous in the early 20th century as an arts colony, and later as the sometime home of Bob Dylan, the now defunct Bearsville Studios, and for lending its name to a rock festival that actually occurred miles away, in Bethel. Lately, the Band's drummer, cancer survivor Levon Helm, has been holding "Rambles," a series of monthly concerts, on his farm outside town.

"I think the New York influence is the same as it is with anyone in New York: you can see any play, get any book, see any movie. It's high-input. Being here is being where I felt like I probably should have been all along. I'm not going to spend a lot of time regretting that. I should have also been sober. And I also should have been a lot of things. I've been sober for 16 years and I've been in New York for six, so I'm a slow learner. I'm going to live here the rest of my life. How would you live anyplace else after living here? I don't see how people do it.

"We have Woodstock because of Allison. She needs it. I don't. I've seen enough trees to last a fucking lifetime. And I travel all over the world. When I get my wings clipped it might be different, but I get to see them anyway. . . . I just looked at the tour schedule, and in June I'm playing Montana, and I booked two days to fish. What I need to work on is getting above 14th Street when I'm home. I'm really bad at seeing enough of New York when I'm here, because I'm so comfortable in my neighborhood, and there's a lot there that I haven't seen."

One thing Earle has seen and spent time on in New York, is the tale of two of his three sons. On April 5, 2010, Allison Moorer gave birth. "He's pretty funny. He's pretty entertaining. Allison's in Palm Springs right now, her and the baby, because she and [her sister] Shelby [Lynne] are writing songs because they're getting ready to make a record. And flying out there, one of the flight attendants said, 'You got to get him in the movies.' Allison said, 'He's not going to have any trouble getting in the movies. My job is to keep him out of the movies as long as possible!' He's a hambone."

At the same time, Earle's oldest son, Justin Townes Earle (his middle son, Ian, was born in 1987), has suddenly become a rock star of sorts, thanks to three increasingly accomplished records; the most recent, Harlem River Blues, was released in 2010. In terms of wrestling demons and reveling in adulation, Justin is learning to navigate the perils of rock stardom. "There's only a limited amount I'm going to say about this one way or the other," says his father. "His best songs are as good as anybody's. His records are really good. My suggestion is, don't read the shit that people write about you. I don't. And there's a reason why I don't. He feels the need to do it. But I was 31 when Guitar Town came out. I read all that shit then and I got in enough trouble as it was, and I'm saying this being 56 now."

So with a new baby, a city he feels at home in, and a lot of balls in the air—author, actor, and auteur—is the music getting easier for the man who once titled an album The Hard Way?

"When I was 20 years old, I didn't use dictionaries and thesauruses because I didn't need them. I didn't think I needed them. I thought it was a wuss thing to do. I think Guy [Clark] probably told me that it was. But now I need those things just to keep things going. I've mined a lot of fucking territory, written a bunch of fucking songs, and my brain probably doesn't work as fast as it used to. There's a lot more up there, a lot more to draw from. I know a lot more than I did at 20 years old.

"We used to make records for girls. Now we make 'em for nerds."

And for unreconstructed fanboys.


volvic's picture

Love the album he did with the Del McCoury band, good stuff.  He keeps getting better with age, hope to run into him one day, although I rarely make it down to the Village.