The hardcore troubadour talks Terraplane blues
By Holly Gleason
Steve Earle, like everyone it seems at “The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert Celebration” at Washington, D.C.’s D.A.R. Constitution Hall, is under the weather. It’s not quite a cold, not quite the flu, but his voice is noticeably grizzled and rough — or rather, more grizzled and rough than usual. But he’s still absolutely giving it all he’s got: a ragged “Sin City” and a duet on “Pancho & Lefty” with fellow Texan Lee Ann Womack.
Since the run-in with a nightstick in Houston on New Year’s Eve 1986, Earle’s voice has had a splintered ’n’ sandpapered quality that suggests hard living and hard time. That, though, is a long time gone. The songwriter who burst through with the churning roots country Guitar Town in 1985 has been in equally hardcore recovery for two decades.
It’s January and the freeze is on in our nation’s capitol. The vibe backstage in the classic granite building is subdued, not quite reverent, though obviously respectful of the evening’s intention; Gram Parsons’ collegiate advisor is in the hallway. Right now, Earle is studying the steamer trays of dinner for the assembled.
“So I hear we’re having a hard time scheduling this interview,” he says, scooping up some flat beans. “What are we gonna do?”
The back and forth, like a badminton bird, is both amusing and vexing. Between planes, trains, and taxis, trying to find a window where can we both talk feels impossible. For Earle, insatiably curious and impossibly scheduled, this is no easy task.
“Tell you what,” he says, “Give me your number and I’ll call you when I get home and settled. I’m gonna see my son, but we’ll figure it out.”
Steve Earle has been figuring it out ever since he realized he wasn’t cut out for football and he wasn’t crazy enough to rodeo. Back then, he started playing music to get girls. Recognizing the hormonal heat generated by a guitar, he threw himself at playing — and seeking the tutelage of the legendary Townes Van Zant.
In a full circle move, Earle has recently returned to a less obvious piece of his Lone Star roots: the blues. Back to when the blues was about getting people primed and ready, back when the blues was a primal thing. For his new album, Terraplane — its title taken from Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” — Earle plugs into the erotic charge that has informed rock and pop since the blues splintered into more mainstream idioms. If the stocky, solid Earle has spent a lifetime marinating in the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddy King, the lessons are well represented here.
Doing a deep dive into a genre isn’t alien to Earle. The Mountain, recorded in 1999 with Del McCoury, was an unrepentant bluegrass work. Nominated for a Grammy, it gave him cred in that realm — and saw several songs become festival standards. “It’s the only record I own of all the records I’ve made,” Earle insists. “And it’s one I’m proud of. That one is solid through and through.” But he is just as proud of his latest. Whether it’s the thrumming lowdown grind of “Go-Go Boots are Back” that evokes the Stones, the faltering “Better Off Alone,” the harmonica-steeped dust-up “Baby Baby Baby,” Terraplane bristles with passion. Knowing he’d committed to a genre and excavating it with songs, the blues served him well.
“It’s why the Stones and the Beatles wanted to be Dylan, and why Dylan wanted to be the Stones and the Beatles — and all of that elevated rock ’n’ roll to an art form,” he says. “That’s the deal: inspiration and the blues. Look at those artists. You’ll see what I mean.”
I’m not sure people saw a blues album coming from you.
It’s a departure in that respect. It exists for the same reason the bluegrass record does. This is a record I’ve considered making my entire career, and I finally got the window to make it. Plus, I’ve got a guitar player who cut his teeth on this kind of blues for the last few years. Having Chris Masterson out there, that made it more a part of what we’re doing: seeping into soundchecks and the way we play, then into the songs.
Texas is as much about the blues as it is the songwriter/troubadour thing of Townes, Guy and Joe Ely.
Townes was all about the blues. “Buckskin Stallion” and “Dollar Bill Blues” are the blues. Townes spent a lot of time around Lightnin’, so a lot of what I know, I got from Townes. You know, I know a lot more than I might otherwise because of him — and people who know more than I do might differ. But it isn’t about crossing this T or dotting that I. Those people can think what they want, but they weren’t in the room with Lightnin’ Hopkins; Townes and I and Guy Clark were. You learn that there’s more to it than form. And if you don’t understand that, that’s how you can get it “right” and miss the whole thing.
Did you get to play with Lightnin’ or any of his peers?
I opened for Mance Lipscomb once at Sand Mountain, but Lightnin’ died right after I moved to Nashville. Mance had a stroke not long after. He died a few years later. But when I first moved to Nashville, I lived in John Lomax’s house. I was married, but didn’t have the money to bring my wife, so I came alone. John was over in Europe, so it was just me and all those Les Blank films on 16 millimeter and a projector. He had all the films, so I just ran ’em and studied.
You take this very seriously, don’t you? It’s not just the next marketing move.
It was an intentional decision, and I’m proud of this. Like The Mountain, I have the same sense of accomplishment. You know, put me in a box with a limited vocabulary, a couple special tools and working within a frame, like a haiku.
And the bluegrass project was pretty committed, too.
Regardless of what the IBMA thinks!
The International Bluegrass Music Association?
They think I’m the devil.
[Laughs] I don’t care. I want the respect of the musicians, not the nerds.
On Terraplane, you have a song where the narrator faces down the devil. In a Robert Johnson at the crossroads Faustian moment, there’s “The Tennessee Kid,” a talking blues.
I read that at the St. Marks Poetry Marathon, and it worked. That lyric holds up on its own.
I think there’s a real primitive poetry to the blues.
The blues are pretty much iambic pentameter. Not necessarily just the words, but taken as a whole. The beats, the lyrics, the music. Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 were absolutely blues records. Most Dylan records since then have been, too. He settled on it, and stuck with it. It’s a good form to work in.
People think of you as a political songwriter. But it’s interesting that this album is much less political than even your bluegrass album.
The bluegrass was more political than this record because mining and all the politics around that comes from the region. That (Appalachian) music is so much a part of the culture. As for this album … it’s just what happened.
Just what happened?
Well, I worked from a couple very specific places: the Chess Records, especially Howlin’ Wolf, and the first two ZZ Top records, along with Canned Heat.
The second concert I ever saw was Canned Heat. That was in 1968, about the same time [the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s] East/West, the first Shuggie Otis and the first Led Zeppelin records all came out.
Were you playing at that point?
I was in a little band in eighth grade that played the blues. We were this little group of long-haired kids, called the Speed Blossom Blues Band. The oldest kid was 15. I was 13. We played all of six gigs, but we rehearsed a lot. We played a couple teen clubs, that kind of thing.
What happened to your band?
I got kicked out for wanting to do Donovan songs. I was like, “Jimmy Page played a hurdy gurdy, I don’t see why we can’t …” That wasn’t where there heads were at.
Those are not acoustic blues influences, but you’re claiming them.
Look, the stuff that’s most intimidating is the electric stuff, the harmonica stuff. This record is — like I said — pretty specific. It’s Texas shuffle and Chicago shuffle, period. There’s no New York shuffle, no LA shuffle. I grew up seeing Freddie King and Johnny Winter … and ZZ Top, for that matter, who are a blues band no matter what else you’re gonna call ’em. And those guys, they’re from North Texas, but they migrated to Austin; they could play. It influenced a lot of people. Just look at the Vaughan Brothers.
That music, though, is being lost.
Alison [Moorer, singer-songwriter and Earle’s recent ex-wife] says, and I think Lonesome Bob told her, that what we do is being a Civil War re-enactor: literally, just showing up and doing something that’s more history than anything. But, hey, I come from a Golden Era of rock and pop, when the music was pretty special. That and the way music got made was something you don’t want to let go of.
So where do you think your younger audience comes from?
My younger audience is more from the political side of things. I don’t necessarily make records for that group, but the ones who’re politically active, they come out to the shows.
Okay, so there’s no politics, what is there that’s driving Terraplane?
[Laughs] Money and women! That’s why most musicians get into it they could say. Actually, Willie Dixon said that!
Sex. That’s simple.
Rock ’n’ roll is sex. Country really is, too. The culture I come from, you’d scan the crowd and weigh who was out there. You’d either play “Help Me Make It Through the Night” or “Sunlight” by the Youngbloods, depending on the girls in the crowd. You knew the hippie chicks would go one way, the other girls would respond to the other.
I could make a joke about how sexual the record is. “You’re the Best Lover,” “The Usual Time,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” …
There’s a very visceral thing to the blues. It is about sex. There is no way around it. Those Chess records? There’s not a lot of improvising going on ’cause they were made for jukeboxes. They were about getting people up and dancing, to get people moving. That was the point. And on the jukebox, you didn’t want the song to last more than three minutes, because you want them to keep putting silver in the jukebox. They wanted people to want to hear the songs, and then they wanted the songs to be over.
And you? Sex and Steve Earle.
Writing about sex is the hardest thing. It is. In my novel, it was absolutely the most awkward. I was definitely the least comfortable and probably the least successful with it.
You seem to have overcome it here.
I’m actually pretty shy. I’m loud, but that doesn’t mean I’m not shy …
Well, you’re pretty up front on this record. You’ve obviously figured it out.
It would’ve been more useful when I was 25, but I didn’t figure it out ’til I was almost 60.
At least you figured it out. Or we could argue it’s heating up because you’re about to be single.
The solution to the blues isn’t necessarily up-tempo and positive. Divorce is only one of the things that have been going on. But if people want to make it about that, this is certainly a record written while going through the divorce.
And with songs like “Better Off Alone,” it could almost be a note to self. Did you feel that way?
I did at the moment that I wrote it. I probably do right now, but a record is a moment of time. People keep moving and evolving, but sure. I think we all do.
Is it strange to be in the midst of all that, then to be making and promoting a record that’s obviously personal?
When it comes right down to it, it’s really nobody’s business beyond what I to choose to put out there. I’ve never been accused of emotionally short-changing my audience.
You can’t do what I do and not be open in the work. So I don’t really care what people think about me, but I do have a little boy and a legal process going on. I don’t read my reviews or articles. I haven’t in a long time, not since I got clean. It’s healthier for me.
And you’re obviously good at the exchange.
Hmmm, I might not answer. I might lie. Being open doesn’t mean I have to tell the whole truth always to every interviewer.
Okay, tell the truth then about “You’re The Best Lover.”
“You’re The Best Lover” started out to be Lightnin’, then I realized it was “Smokestack Lightning.” I just kept strumming, and listening, letting the song decide what it wanted to be. The more I played it, the more obvious it was. “Lover” wanted to be “Smokestack Lightning.” Sometimes you just trust the song.
Then there’s that little burlesque duet, “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me.”
Yeah, New Orleans blues from the turn of the last century. That was actually the last thing I wrote for this album. It all started ’cause somebody asked me who the duet was with. And I realized I didn’t have a duet on this record. Eleanor (Whitmore, the other half of husband/wife duo the Mastersons and now a member of Earle’s band the Dukes) has been singing all the duets on the road. She’s singing Emmy’s parts and Lucinda’s, Allison’s. But this one? I wrote it just for her.
Is there a hierarchy?
I Feel Alright was with Lucinda. Siobahn (Kennedy) has sung with me. Iris (DeMent) was on The Mountain. I saw her at a festival in Australia and knew she was perfect. Then Allison sorta took over that job. She sang all the duets, and that was that. Now for obvious reasons, there’s Eleanor and I wanted to write a song that was perfect for her voice.
And “You’re The Best Lover” is intentionally a little less misogynistic than the form traditionally is, too. I think I softened it up a little.
“Smokestack Lighting” is a pretty stout model. It’s very undulating, very much a song that is … well, randy. And I say that as a girl listening.
There is this tendency to think of the blues as boy’s music. Some of it is, but it’s because the boys haven’t been doing it right. That whole athletic virtuoso stuff that women just aren’t interested in? Well, that’s not “Smokestack Lightning.” Girls like that.
If the musicians know that, then what happened?
Truthfully, guitar solos originally were so the singer could go to the bathroom. When you’re playing four sets a night, sometimes with no break, that guitar solo is a life saver.
It started to change in the ’60s. But before that, the virtuoso guitar players didn’t make records that reflected the live show. That wasn’t the deal. The deal was getting people hopped up and wanting to hear the record again. Most of those records were less than three minutes.
They’re absolutely pop records, Holly. And because of what the Chess Brothers were doing (in the studio), they sounded really good. Looking back, they were the best sounding records of the day, which is part of why their artists stood out.
So how aware are you of trying to maintain the women in the room?
There’s a lot of guys at my shows, but there’s always been girls, too. I figure I have to look at my audience, and they get hairier and uglier every year. Otherwise (without these kinds of songs), I know how it’d look out there.
You used R.S. Fields in the studio for this record. You’ve worked with him in the past.
That was easy. R.S. knows this stuff chapter and verse. Everything. He’s from Mississippi, and the blues is in his blood. So we were able to go in and record it all in five days. There were no overdubbed vocals. Maybe a few guitar solos were overdubbed, because Chris was playing on the tracking. But it was a pretty straight-up recording.
That was easy.
Yeah. And I know what my next record is going to be, and my next one after that. In the fall, I’m doing a record with Shawn Colvin — and I’m doing a country record.
Yeah, the one after the one with Shawn will be a country record, even though it won’t get on country radio ’cause I’m too old and I’m not getting a lobotomy any time soon.
I didn’t think you’d ever come back to the format.
Well I started writing a song T Bone (Burnett) asked me to write for Nashville. When I did, all these other songs came out. I know that music. It’s a piece of who I was, but who knows? There’ll probably be a video on “You’re The Best Lover” because CMT says they’ll play it if we do. So maybe it makes sense.
Man, I didn’t see that coming …
It’s a tough town that way. I was done getting fucked with, that’s why I was going to Memphis to make a record. That’s where Copperhead Road happened, and why. Sometimes you have to protect the music.