Earle's latest work embraces peace far more than protest
By Michael Hoinski
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Joan Baez set Steve Earle free. The year was 1970 and Earle, 15, was
living the life of a budding anti-war protester in Schertz, about 90
miles south of Austin, when he was dragged to the drive-in with his
family. They arrived late, and all the screens were full except the
one showing "Woodstock." Earle's dad wasn't too stoked about his only
option, but he'd promised his kids a movie save for Steve, who
didn't want to be there in the first place on account of him and his
dad butting heads over just about everything. But when Baez performed
"Amazing Grace" a cappella, an epiphany of monumental proportions was reached.
"I think us beginning to come to some sort of terms about the fact
that I was opposed to the war and he was a government employee in a
military town, you know, began that day," Earle says via cell phone
aboard his tour bus a week before his show tonight in Austin at the
Earle, now 53, is one of the most politically charged musicians in
the roots-rock game. But his latest album, the Grammy-winning
"Washington Square Serenade," is a much different affair. It reflects
on Earle's move after about 30 years in Nashville to the same street
in New York's Greenwich Village where the cover of "The Freewheelin'
Bob Dylan" was shot that, and the new love of his life, sixth wife
Allison Moorer, who is touring with him in support of her new album,
Songs on "Washington Square Serenade" such as "Tennessee Blues," a
fond farewell to Nashville, and "City of Immigrants," a bear-hug
embrace of the Big Apple that's backed by the world-music tones of
Brazilian band Forro in the Dark, intermingle with "Sparkle and
Shine," an ode to Moorer, and "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)," a paean to
folk pioneer Pete Seeger that calls for laying down, not wielding,
the hammer. The mix creates an album that is more about peace, love
and understanding than it is about protest. Earle is on such a roll
that he even tries his hand at hip-hop on "Satellite Radio," wherein
his half-rap over an electronic beat and an acoustic riff doesn't
just work but sings.
"Serenade" was produced by John King, one half of the Dust Brothers,
the duo who helmed the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique" and Beck's
"Odelay." Earle and King auditioned each other over the Internet,
one-upping, by way of e-mail, versions of Earle's cover of Tom Waits'
"Way Down in the Hole," which Earle had been commissioned to cut for
the fifth and final season of the thoroughly engrossing inner-city
television drama "The Wire."
"It was so the opposite of the way that I normally work, but that's
what this was: intentionally working as far away from my comfort zone
as I could get," Earle says of his move away from the studio and its
cast of armchair critics to the intimate confines of computers. "And
I loved it. I mean, it's not for every situation. There are some
things you've got to be able to look the beast in the eye. But I'm
not afraid of it anymore."
And why should he be afraid of anything, really? He's been to hell
and back. See, in his 30s, Earle was an up-and-comer with two gold
albums under his belt, "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road." His
affinity for the needle eventually landed him in jail and out of the
game for a spell. But like Walon, the recovering heroin addict on
HBO's "The Wire" that he played with heart-throttling authenticity,
Earle has no regrets.
"A lot of what 12-step programs are about is not letting regret kill
you 'cause it takes you back out there and it kills you if you spend
too much time on it," he says. "I think I was an addict that I'm an
addict on a genetic level. I think I would have succumbed to this
disease if I had been a carpenter."
Recently, the full-circle dynamic of life played out for Earle on an
almost Shakespearean level. Joan Baez, the person who emancipated him
(and his dad) nearly 40 years ago, unwittingly gave Earle a chance to
pay her back by asking him to produce her forthcoming,
as-yet-untitled album. Slated for release this summer, it features
two songs Earle wrote for it, plus others by Elvis Costello, Eliza
Gilkyson and Patty Griffin.
Too bad Earle's dad, who passed away a couple days after Christmas,
won't be able to rejoice in this divine conception, because, as Earle
says, "It's really, really, really great."
Troubadour Steve Earle makes big return to Mississippi
Issue date: 4/25/08
Most would not expect a person that dropped out of high school, took
his first shot of heroin at 13 and went to jail for drugs to be much
of a success, but then you would have never heard the story of Steve
Earle. Earle is that kind of anomaly. When he first burst onto the
scene in the early '80s he was heralded as Nashville's Springsteen.
Now, due to his outspoken political stance he draws more comparisons
to protest singers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, both of whom
are big influences on Earle.
He has since traded Nashville for New York City, addiction for
sobriety and wife number seven for number eight. Now, he is a tour de
force after nailing down two Grammys for his last two album efforts.
Touring behind his latest album Washington Square Serenade, Earle and
his wife, folk rock singer Allison Moorer made a stop Wednesday night
at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Oxford. The
current tour, which started in January in Scotland, is in effect
Earle and Moorer's honeymoon of sorts - the first tour for both since
"I did a handful of shows on my own and waited until Allison's record
came out because we tour together," Earle said. "We're sort of seeing
the world from a tour bus, which is what I'm used to."
Moorer opened the show with cuts off her current album Mockingbird.
Her voice has a haunting quality and the reverberation of it and
slow, demure strumming of her guitar made the performance an intimate
experience. Moorer, an Alabama native, dedicated her final song to a
high school friend who was in the audience, the dedication spoken in
her almost whisper-like speaking voice.
Earle came out in full regalia, waved a few times and began playing
"Another Town" off his Transcendental Blues album. Earle alone on
stage with nothing but his acoustic guitar and harmonica has all the
soul and rhythm of a five-piece band turned up to 11. Working through
his back catalog of songs such as "Devil's Right Hand" and "My Old
Friend the Blues" he warmed up the crowd with his classics before
switching to his more current selections.
"This song goes out to what's her name, wherever the hell she is,"
Earle said, introducing the song "Now She's Gone." Switching
harmonicas for the next song, "Goodbye Is All We've Got Left To Say,"
Earle said "same girl, different harmonica" before striking up the
first chord of the song.
Before launching into the somewhat autobiographical "South Nashville
Blues" Earle said, "I reckon all towns have a side of town like this
one." The song, a somewhat firsthand account of Earle's drug-fueled
"vacation in the ghetto" documents his self-destructive romp through
Nashville's rough South side district.
Delving into the songs off Washington Square Serenade, Earle brought
out more of his "band." His current backing band consists of a DJ and
a set of turntables, an uncommon sight to see alongside the
mandolins, acoustic guitars and banjos of Earle's.
The latest album took a new direction to writing an album, Earle
said, but isn't a different approach.
"Some kid unpacking a box of software and tossing out the owner's
manual and getting on there and pushing buttons isn't any different
than any of the kids in Greenwich Village in the '60s buying banjos
and doing their own thing," Earle said.
The beatboxing and samples on the latest record were arrived at in an
"The way I arrived at [using] the beats was I thought I was writing a
demo. At first I needed time alone with these songs. They just
sounded really good and the album became what the songs initially
were, which is one person and the songs," Earle said. "The whole
album was kind of based on the idea that hip-hop is folk music too."
Performed live, the new tracks worked well outside the environment of
the studio. Some of the more stellar songs live were the modern
southern drug biopic "Oxycontin Blues" which documents the damage
done by the drug upon rural Appalachia. Earle's farewell to
Nashville, "Tennessee Blues," is enhanced by the presence of the
sampling and beatboxing of the DJ.
Moorer came onstage later to join Earle as duet partner on some
selections including "Days Are Never Long Enough," written by Earle
for him and his wife to sing together.
Before moving onto his more politically-charged songs, Earle
emphasized the change to politics by asking the crowd, "Y'all ready
to talk some politics?"
The question received a loud applause and yells from the crowd,
knowing that whatever was about to come out of Earle's mouth would be
interesting. He began to relate his impressions on the current
presidential race, the country, immigration and of course the war in Iraq.
While singing "Pete's Hammer," his latest political anthem and
tribute to the late '60s protest singer Pete Seeger, Earle stopped in
the middle of the song to ask the audience, "Are y'all tired of this war?"
Continuing on, Earle asked the audience if they believed music could
stop a war and if they didn't they weren't alive during Vietnam.
"Music stopped that [expletive] war," Earle said, referring to the
Vietnam War. "So, I want everybody to sing as loud as you can and if
your neighbor isn't singing you sing loud enough to embarrass them
into singing. You better sing loud 'cause it's a long way to
Washington and you don't want anyone thinking you're a Republican."
After finishing the show with "Way Down In The Hole," which has been
selected as the theme song for HBO's "The Wire," Earle returned to
the stage for an encore.
Performing a personal rendition of "Little Rock and Roller," a song
written for Earle's eldest son, he relayed how this was his first
tour without his father Jack.
The emotion was evident in Earle's face as he paid tribute to his
late father and commemorated the relationship between father and son.
Of course, no night would be complete without what is possibly
Earle's most famous song, "Copperhead Road." Documenting the
generations of the Pettimore family in the song, Earle was in top
form as he wove his way through the new Southern gothic anthem.
Finishing the song, Earle took a bow and greeted his wife who was
waiting stage left.
The crowd in Oxford was receptive of Earle and his new songs and
overall response has been good for his somewhat unorthodox approach
to the latest album.
"I've thrown enough curveballs at my audience, so much doesn't
surprise them," Earle said.