Music » Artist on Artist

Steve Earle on hanging out with Levon Helm, learning to love Taylor Swift, and more

The veteran musician, budding actor, and unapologetic Harry Potter fan talks to local singer-songwriter Quinn Tsan.


Now that Steve Earle's career has entered its fourth decade, it's not particularly defensible to keep calling him a country-­music maverick. In the mid-90s, after recovering from a disastrous drug habit, he began carving out his own niche of the periphery of Nashville, a bad boy learning to coexist with the industry. He's stayed loyal to the honky-tonk, hard rock, bluegrass, and Dylan-esque folk-rock of his youth, reshuffling those sounds into different combinations with each new project; though his music won't surprise you, it continues to satisfy. Earle has a new studio album called Terraplane on the way, cut with his superb band the Dukes (it's due from New West on Tue 2/17), but for this week's four-night stand at City Winery, he's playing solo—armed with only his scratchy, twangy voice and an acoustic guitar, he'll tap into the Texas-­troubadour tradition of his early heroes (and eventual colleagues) Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

Interviewing Earle for this week's Artist on Artist is local singer-songwriter Quinn Tsan. A Minneapolis native, she moved to Chicago in 2008 and soon began singing backup for Americana-influenced folkie Joe Pug. She's since pursued a solo career, and in November she self-released her lovely, sun-touched debut EP, Good Winter, where she enlists the help of 11 other local musicians. Tsan has a free show at the Whistler on Wed 1/28 with Sima Cunningham and Exit Ghost; she's also playing the Hideout on Fri 2/20 as part of Dunn Dunn Fest. Peter Margasak

Quinn Tsan: I've only seen you play once. It was back in 2009, when you picked up—I used to sing backup for Joe Pug, right before he went on tour with you.

Steve Earle: Cool!

You were doing the Townes record, playing solo. How was touring solo? Because I know that most of your records are backed by a band.

I've always done both, and I started out solo, so I'm pretty comfortable doing it. I'm going to tour to support this record [Terraplane] with a band. But I'll end up going out and doing solo shows before and after, because I'm going through a divorce and I need the money. It's one of those deals. I basically make the same money to play solo that I do with the band. So I do both. The band has inspired the new record—it's a blues record, so Chicago will be a really important stop.

No kidding! That's a huge crowd here. Do you prefer one over the other? Do you like playing solo versus with a band?

Nah, I like 'em both. I mean, playing solo is great sometimes—it's a financial pleasure, as Kinky Friedman says. But I get tired of it and want to play with a band. And I get sick of the band and want to play solo. And I get tired of playing with the rock band and want to play with the bluegrass band.

You've had the Dukes for quite a while.

[Bassist] Kelly Looney since 1988, [drummer] Will Rigby since 1999. And [guitarist] Chris Masterson and [fiddle player] Eleanor Whitmore came along like two records back. I made [the 2011 album] I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive in LA with T-Bone [Burnett] and that band that he uses in the studio, which are great players, but Eleanor and Chris played that stuff live. And then we made The Low Highway together. Chris was a lot of the inspiration for making this new record. He grew up in Texas playing in blues bands—very, very hard-core blues bands. So I had the guitar player to do it, for one thing. And I just started writing songs on sound check, like I always do, at the end of the last tour. I wrote one blues song, then wrote another one, and I said, OK, maybe we're doing a blues record.

My grandma was a big fan of yours. She's passed now, but when I was a kid, we'd listen to you and Townes [Van Zandt] and Bob [Dylan] and John Prine, a lot of those guys. You've been doing so much touring for so long—how does writing come about? Is it pretty intentional? Do you think it's something where you make a choice?

Well, yeah. I do realize where money comes from for me—I have to write new songs for people to stay interested. And I write other things—I'm writing another fucking book now, which is a struggle. There's a divorce going on, I've got a little boy with autism—that takes a certain amount of energy and time. I've got to finish this book. It's a memoir, and I wake up some mornings and I just don't fucking feel like writing about me. But in some ways, when I write songs, they're all about me.

It's kind of inevitable.

I turned 60 last Saturday [January 17], and I've seen songwriters stop writing as early as their 40s. I'm very vigilant about trying to find a reason to write. Moving to New York was partially—I felt like I needed the shot in the arm. It's harder to stagnate in New York. They used to think sharks didn't sleep, because their gills don't intake water—they have to be moving all the time to breathe. But they figured out that what they do is they go park someplace where there's a stream that moves water through their gills and they sleep there. New York's kind of like that. So if I ever get too old to travel, I'll feel safe in New York because there'll still be input.

There's nothing to write about in woods except the woods. If that's what you want to write about, cool. I'm somebody that's sort of spoiled. I'm used to seeing Paris every 18 or 19 months. And being a world citizen is where my world­view comes from. But my dad got ill the last few years of his life and couldn't really travel—he always liked to travel. And watching him go through that process, I wondered how I would hold up if I got my wings clipped, and the answer was that I probably wouldn't hold up very well. So I got my ass to New York. Opening my front door and seeing a mixed-race same-sex couple holding hands makes me feel safe in the political atmosphere that we've been surviving in the last decade.

It's safe to write, like, "Jerusalem"—those more political songs.

I'm not really a political songwriter, but I'm a political person, so it gets into my work. I still write more songs about girls than I do anything else.

Do you ever talk about politics at your shows?

Sure. I went off last night. It was Martin Luther King's birthday.

Have you had any memorable experiences with audience members, talking about politics?

There's some people who've told me to shut up and sing. I tell 'em, "Fuck off and go see Ryan Adams."

Joe [Pug] talked a lot about your influence on him, kind of as an informal mentor just from touring with you. And your son [Justin Townes Earle] is a musician. I'm curious about how the relationship with Townes affected your approach with working with younger musicians.

Townes and Guy [Clark] both, they were very generous. Townes was more like—he'd give me a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and tell me to go read it. Guy would show me how he laid songs out on paper. I'm just as likely to steer a young songwriter towards Shakespeare as I am Townes. Because Townes was all about Shakespeare. That's the difference between Townes and Bob Dylan. Bob was about Beat poets and French modern poets and [Paul] Verlaine and [Arthur] Rimbaud. And Townes was about Shakespeare and Robert Frost. If you'd ask Townes who his two biggest influences were, he's say Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Frost.

I do this camp now [Camp Copperhead]. Teaching's important to me; I think it's a 12-step thing. There's a thing in 12-step programs, which are sort of the center of my life to this day—I still go to meetings and call my sponsor and all that stuff. The maxim in 12-step programs is that you only keep it by giving it away. The stupidest thing ever said in the English language was "Those that do, do; those that can't, teach." Teaching's really important. Seamus Heaney taught. Michael Longley still teaches. Teaching's a really important part of learning. If I feel a responsibility to teach and to pass things along, then I have to stay plugged in.

You've been doing this for so long, but are there still present-day influences that you're taking from it all?

I get set in my ways and I don't listen to stuff. When I do listen to music at home, I tend to listen to jazz and stuff that doesn't have lyrics. But then I'll go through periods when I'll immerse myself again. I see more theater than I do anything else. I probably see 20 plays and musicals a year. Or more. I'm about live theater and Major League Baseball, for the most part. I've listened to the new Taylor Swift record a lot.


It's a really good record! She's a real songwriter. And I didn't know. It wasn't like I avoided it; I don't stay all that plugged in.

The last time I was nominated for a Grammy, I guess it was three years ago—when I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive was out. I went to the ceremony and I didn't win; the Civil Wars kicked my ass. But I stayed for the show, and Taylor opened it. I had never seen her; I'd just heard the odd snippet of a song here and there. I had friends that'd worked with her back in Nashville, and I knew there had to be something to it. But I'd gone back to check out the big thing that happened six months ago or a year ago that I missed and been disappointed before. Garth Brooks was an example. I didn't quite get that—I didn't understand what the big deal was.

But I saw Taylor do "Mean" that night at the Grammys, and I went "Oh!" She's writing about herself, and every teenage girl in the world can relate to it because they've experienced that too. That's the job, man. And I've kind of been a fan ever since.

I don't know how much time you've spent in Chicago when you're not playing, but have you spent any time with the Chicago theater scene at all?

Oh yes. Because Tony Fitzpatrick's one of my very best friends. I actually was in Tony's very first production with Steppenwolf, The Remembered City. I pay a lot of attention, and I see all the Chicago stuff when it comes here. I think the last transplanted Chicago production I saw was probably the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Tracy Letts was in, and it was incredible.

How did you start acting?

David Simon's idea, totally. David Simon's a music fan, and he decided I could play this character Walon that he was dreaming up for The Wire.

How was it? Do you like acting a lot?

I like it a whole lot. When you get up and say words written by David Simon and Tim Blake Nelson, you learn about writing from it. Trust me.

Did seeing that process—watching when they're doing table readings and stuff like that—give you any songs?

Yeah, sure. There's a lot of time sitting on your ass in a trailer in the film industry. I've written a lot of stuff on film sets. I wrote "The City" on hold for a week, for an episode of Treme.

So you have more plans to keep acting and balancing both?

There's a new film out that I'm in called The World Made Straight, directed by a guy called David Burris. I read for anything that anybody offers me that I have time for. Sometimes touring gets in the way; I miss parts because I'm not available. I got to read with Meryl Streep for a movie [Ricki and the Flash], and then Rick Springfield got it. I got to read with Meryl for two hours; we read the whole movie. I was seriously considered, and I got a really good shot at it, and I got to read with Meryl Streep. So I can't really complain!

I've seen the tribute to Townes with Willie [Nelson] and Emmylou Harris and a lot of the old legends. How is that community, in music and in friendship—do you have a lot of relationships with those folks you've grown with over the years?

I've been lucky. I got to Nashville in 1974, and it was still pretty democratic and wide open. You'd find me and David Olney, who were at street level, and Neil Young all in the same hotel room in the middle of the night sometimes. That's how I met Neil. I met Neil because I already knew Jerry Jeff Walker. I went to where the songwriters were, and in 1974 they were in Nashville. And then it changed and I moved on.

I've been really lucky to have good teachers and get to hang out with some of my heroes. I'm doing a benefit with Stephen Stills, who was one of my very first heroes. I've got a house in Woodstock—I'm getting ready to lose it in the divorce, but my neighbors there were John Sebastian and till very recently Levon Helm. My son got a drum kit that Levon Helm gave him for Christmas, the last Christmas that Levon was on Earth. It's cool to get to hang out with your heroes. Guy Clark covering one of my songs was one of the biggest deals to me in the world ever.

Do you have a favorite version or a favorite cover of something that you wrote? I know Emmylou did a lot.

Emmy's version of "Goodbye." I think it's as much her song as it is mine.

"The Low Highway," that's a song I've been listening to a lot. There's a lyricism in that, very much observing Americana. I haven't done an incredible amount of traveling, but I think more of the United States than friends my age at least, and there's a lot to write about when you're seeing all this stuff for the first time. But after doing what you've been doing for so long, how do you still find things to write about?

Like I said, it's part of why I moved to New York. I ride the subway; I don't wear earbuds in the subway. I go to sleep over Bleecker Street with my windows open, listening to the conversations of the idiots out front. I just don't shut myself off to that kind of input. I'm bad about getting insular and not listening to music, but I'm never bad about not listening to the world that's going on around me. It's probably one of the reasons I don't listen to that much music. I don't want to miss the stuff you overhear, because that's where the cool stuff to steal is.

Totally. Are you planning on still putting out a lot of poetry?

The stuff I've written I hope to publish someday. Maybe there will come a time when I'll write more poetry. But right now I've got a couple of projects that mean I still basically write one new poem to read at St. Mark's on New Year's Day every year.

I know Shakespeare's a huge one, but you read a ton. What are you reading these days?

I read everything that Ron Rash has written. He's an author in North Carolina; he wrote the book that this movie I was just in was based on. Good God, what else? I'm rereading Be Here Now right now, because I'm going to Hawaii to meet Ram Dass. I haven't read it since 1974, when it came out. I read and reread Shakespeare. I read Harry Potter books over and over again. They're kind of about death, in a positive way, which is something we don't have much of in this society. So kids can learn that death's a part of life from reading those books. I think it'll be considered literature—you know, Dickens was considered to be just pop culture when it was being written. There's only a handful of writers that I've read everything they've written; one is William Shakespeare, and another is J.K. Rowling.

You were studious when you were younger, but did you drop out of high school?

I did. I dropped out in the middle of my second attempt at the ninth grade.

I dropped out too.

I don't have very many regrets, but one of them is not getting to go to college and getting to be a scholar. As a writer, I do regret that. I'm constantly making up for it. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, because most of the time I end up reading fiction to make up for my lack of education.

I dropped out my senior year and went on and got my GED and started applying to schools, and then music kind of took a life of its own. But in my free time I'm kind of a history nerd. If I do go to college, it'd be just paying for peers.

That's why I teach, because it sort of makes me go back to school.

If you did go back to school, what do you think you'd study?

Literature and probably some history.

It's difficult to balance both things. The idea of also going to school when you're trying to pick up to tour every month, leaving for a couple of weeks at a time . . .

I don't know what to tell you there, but you've got a better chance now, when you're in your 20s, than you do getting to be my age and wishing you'd done it. You should consider it.

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