Published Feb 17, 2015It is hard to imagine a singer/songwriter with a more stylistically diverse discography than Steve Earle. He has put out bluegrass, rock 'n roll, political folk, country, and hard-edged country-rock records over the course of an illustrious career now spanning 30 years.
Now the prolific hardcore troubadour has got the blues, with that genre providing the core of Terraplane his 16th studio recording. Credited to Earle and his longtime band The Dukes, it will be released on New West Records on February 17. Exclaim! chatted with Earle about the disc and his long relationship with the blues over coffee in Toronto recently.
He notes that growing up in the blues-rich state of Texas actually made it difficult to come up with a blues record until now. "The bar is really high if you come from where I did. I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter. I know Jimmy Vaughan and Kim Wilson [The Fabulous Thunderbirds] and Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top]. I saw [blues legends] Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt [Earle's early musical heroes and mentors] would see them all the time. It was a pilgrimage folk musicians then would make. There is no New York or L.A. blues shuffle, there is only a Texas and Chicago shuffle. Blues is in my DNA but it's also more intimidating for me to try than other people probably. That's why I haven't said 'I'm making a blues record' until this point."
Earle fondly recalls that "Canned Heat was the second concert I ever saw, in 1968, and that was a big deal. I was in a blues band then, surrounded by bunch of kids who only listened to country music. We were kind of isolated, but we listened to Paul Butterfield, Electric Flag, Shuggie Otis, the first Johnny Winter and Led Zeppelin albums. That was my first band but I got kicked out for wanting to do a Donovan song!"
A catalyst in finally tackling a blues album on the cusp of 60 was a period of personal turmoil. Earle's marriage to singer Allison Moorer was breaking up, after eight years (a record length of time for Earle, who has been married seven times to six different women). The songs on Terraplane were written during this period, and tunes like "Better Off Alone," "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had," and "Baby's Just As Mean As Me" clearly reflect that.
The result is arguably the most overtly personal Earle album yet, though he takes issue with that claim a little. "The tabloid-ish side of us gravitates to that as a theme. I'm not saying that it is not, but to me, looking back at them, [2011's] I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive was a pretty personal record. It's about death, and you can't get more personal than that. My father's death triggered that record. There's [2002's] Jerusalem. As political as it is, it's largely about my personal reaction to September 11, as an American, a person and a leftie. It's hard enough to be a leftie in my country without that shit happening. It's not getting any better and I see things have slipped a bit up here too."
To Earle, "there are several ways to deal with the blues and 'Better Off Alone' represents the most straightforward. There is no bluster involved, it is only pain and that works. Blues is not music that is supposed to bum you out. It is therapy for hard times, not the cause of hard times. As a songwriter, I think that's the best song on the record, the one I hope gets covered."
Terraplane features material that covers the blues spectrum, from sparse '30s sounding country blues to blues-rock. "When I wrote 'South Nashville Blues' [off 1996's I Feel Alright,] Richard Bennett [guitarist/co-producer] said 'you write really good '30s songs.' But to me making a blues record is based on my experience of the part of the blues I absorbed as I was becoming me artistically, and that includes the first two ZZ Top records and Canned Heat."
He sounds less enamoured of current blues, noting that "it has become a genre that is about virtuosity on the instrument and extended versions. That is not what the Chess Records or Robert Johnson were."
Earle recently previewed some of Terraplane's songs on solo dates in New York City and Chicago ("residencies I have in winter to pay the bills"), and will play them soon with The Dukes on Letterman and at a few radio tapings in NYC.
The band will be back on the road in the U.S. and Canada commencing in April. "The tour will start around April 16 or 17 in Louisiana or Texas," says Earle. "I know we'll be playing a lot in Western Canada in August, and most likely Massey Hall will be the second last date of the tour, prior to finishing in New York City." He speaks highly of Toronto's historic Massey Hall, calling it "one of my favourite venues in the whole world. Carnegie Hall sounds great when you are playing solo, but it's not so great for a rock band. Massey works for both."
Over the past decade, Steve Earle has branched into acting and writing. He has had major roles in groundbreaking HBO series The Wire and Treme and will appear in the upcoming films Dixieland and The World Made Straight. In 2011, he published his first novel, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, which received critical acclaim plus kudos from Patti Smith.
"I think my songs are all better because of the prose and poetry writing and the acting," Earle says. "When you have to commit to memory and perform words that were written by David Simon [creator of The Wire and Treme], it makes you a better writer."
Fans now keenly anticipating the much-discussed publication of Earle's literary memoir Can't Remember If We Said Goodbye (a line from his song "Goodbye") will have to remain patient a mite longer.
"It is way slower than I want it to be, but it is going," he explains. "I have discovered something that will help move it along. I'm not writing a linear autobiography, so it is about trying to figure out what is important and making the jumps and connecting the three parts it will be in. I have days when I get up and I just can't fuckin' face that, so I write something else other than the memoir. Plus I've had personal shit going on. I'm in the teeth of the divorce, trying to get it done. I thought the divorce would have been done with by now so I thought the memoir would be finished by now, but I haven't been able to finish either one. Did finish this record though!"
Earle remains unusually and even uncomfortably candid in discussing his turbulent personal life. "Everyone wants peace, whether they know it or not. I consciously know it and want it. I don't need turmoil to make art. I never believed I had to create drama. Back in 1986, I was late for a show I played with Rosanne Cash as I'd spent the night in jail. She said to me then, 'you don't have to create drama in your life. You embody it.' I don't agree with that though. My therapist thinks I choose the wrong people on purpose 'cos I really want to be alone, but I believe I'm just trying and am doing bad at it or am unlucky or whatever. It hasn't worked out. What I get out of that is I write songs. I was put here to write."