virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 6 Mar 06 08:53
We welcome the return to the Inkwell of author David McGee, here this trip to discuss his new book on Steve Earle.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 6 Mar 06 09:05
David McGee is the author of three books: "Go, Cat, Go: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly" (Hyperion, 1996); "B.B. King: There Is Always One More Time" (Backbeat, 2005); as well as "Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet" (Backbeat, 2005). His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Absolute Sound, Acoustic Guitar, New Musical Express, Spin, BMI Music World and other publications. He has written liner notes for albums by Dr. John, B.B. King, for four Chieftains reissues, and for Sony's 100-CD box set, Soundtrack Of the Century, and wrote the concluding chapter for the companion book to the PBS Series, "American Roots Music." He is the country music editor for barnesandnoble.com and the editor of trade show publications for CMP Entertainment Inc. Born and raised in Oklahoma, he lives in New York City. Leading the discussion with David are Well members Holly Tedford and David Gans. Holly Tedford is a grantwriter and nonprofit consultant by day, a singer- songwriter and honky-tonk music enthusiast by night. Though a proud Texas native now residing in San Francisco, she is a relative latecomer to the alternative Texas country music scene. She started catching up in the early 90s while listening to the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Terry Allen on Joe Horn's World Famous Texas Music Show. Holly has followed Steve Earle's career off and on since that time, which she spent living near his childhood hometown of Schertz. David Gans is a musician, author, radio producer, and one of the hosts of inkwell.vue. He joins us from on tour himself. How are things, you three?
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Tue 7 Mar 06 09:54
Very good, and I'm happy to be doing this, so thanks for including me. I want to open with the disclaimer that I've never done this interview in inkwell.vue thing before, so I hope that everyone will go easy on me. That said, the first thing that I'm always curious about when reading a biography is how the author chose this particular subject, so I'm interested to hear from David how he came to start a project on/with Steve Earle. I'm also curious about where in Oklahoma you grew up David, and if the sort of music you heard being in that region and people you were raised around are what led to your interest in roots music throughout your career. Personally I feel that my own background in S. OK/N. TX is the reason for my affinity to this music, and I suspect that's true of many folks from rural or Southern backgrounds. Obviously you don't have to be from the region to enjoy it, but I know that while I was reading the book many of the people in Steve Earle's background and the themes from his life and music reminded me very strongly of the people and themes from my own upbringing. Was there a similar affinity for you?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Wed 8 Mar 06 11:12
It's good to be back on The Well. I thoroughly enjoyed the dialogue we had going on the B.B. King book, which was spurred by some very knowledgeable B.B. fans. That was a real pleasure. Holly, you can find out more about me and my background than you care to know at rockcritics.com, where a looooonnnnnng interview is posted. As I say in the interview, brevity is not my strong suit. But to answer your question here, I was born in Oklahoma City but as far as my exposure to music, it all began in Tulsa, where our family moved when I was but a lad of four. To put it in context, the culture in Tulsa at that time was more southern than western, and in my home in particular it was a deep south culture--my mother was from Carbon Hill, Alabama, my dad from Lawrenceville, Tennessee (the son of a Methodist minister), and large portions of my summers were spent in Carbon Hill and Guin, Alabama (these small coal mining towns are about 50 miles north of Birmingham). Gospel music, black and white, was omnipresent in our home--I remember Sunday mornings before going to church sitting in the kitchen while my mother fixed breakfast with the radio beaming performances by everyone from the Blackwood Brothers to the Dixie Hummingbirds. And being in Tulsa meant Saturday nights were adults-only recreation at Cain's Ballroom, to the sounds of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who played there every weekend (I can still see in my mind's eye the little 1/4 horizontal ad Cain's always ran in the Tulsa World announcing Wills's appearances). Saturday afternoon, Leon McAuliffe had his own show on Channel 6, and that was must-see TV for us. After I discovered and was altered by rock 'n' roll, when an older cousin intrdouced me to Elvis and "Heartbreak Hotel" in the summer of '56, I was encouraged in my delirium by my father bringing home used 78s and later 45s from the jukebox in one of the small restaurants he owned in downtown Tulsa--these spanned the waterfront from Jo Stafford to Muddy Waters to Little Richard to Elvis...you name it. So rather than children's songs, the music that formed my sensibility was early rock 'n' roll, gospel, country, classic American pop, doo-wop, R&B and Broadway show tunes, which I believe I discovered by watching the Ed Sullivan show with my parents every Sunday night, although someone had bought me the cast recording of "My Fair Lady" and I was wearing it out pretty good before I really understood that the songs came from a Broadway show. For a family that had no musicians in it, ours was quite a musical household, and looking back I am thankful that I had parents who didn't try to shelter me from the evils of all that devil's music permeating the culture after 1956. My mom's standard response to anyone who wondered if she feared rock 'n' roll's savage influence on her young son was, "When he's playing those records I always know where he is." The only badmouthing rock 'n' roll ever got in my house was from my older stepbrother (by 15 years), who hated Elvis with a passion, but mellowed on him after he got a load of the Beatles come '64 ("At least Elvis could sing," he would say, "but these guys are hopeless."). I digress. But yes, what we know recognize as all types of roots music was all around me and the people who brought me into this world, it was loved, it was respected, and I believe it taught good lessons, along with the solid values my parents embodied in their daily lives. I am grateful every day for having been raised in the South.
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Wed 8 Mar 06 17:34
So how did you come to write about Steve Earle particularly? In a way, at least in my reading of it, this book is more than a bio, it's like a history of a particular span of time in the development of a particular country music scene, but it's channeled through the career and experiences of Earle. Was that way of presenting it a decision you came to after starting on Earle's life particularly, or did you start with that broader picture and narrow onto Earle from there?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 8 Mar 06 18:24
holly asks a question similar to what I was wondering. There was a lot of history about that era in the book that was pretty interesting. Also, how much of a chance did you get to actually talk with Steve Earle for the book? Something I was curious about is if he was such an unpleasant person in those early years, down to smelling bad and so on, I'm wondering why all those women married him. :-) Did you ever find out?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Thu 9 Mar 06 08:59
Holly, the book was always intended to be about Steve, with the broader mission of placing his body of work in the context of the musical developments of his time. I haven't read each and every book that's been published about Texas singer-songwriters, but I felt the '70s scene in the Austin-Houston-San Antonio axis had not been properly covered, and without it there is no Steve Earle story. Also, I knew from being at the University of Oklahoma in the early '70s that Michael Martin Murphey was the first guy from that scene to gain any kind of significant profile outside of the immediate area there--all of us at OU who liked that kind of music well knew Michael Murphey but hardly anyone knew of Townes or Guy Clark; and it seemed to me that Michael has been written out of the history over time, I think because that "Cosmic Cowboy" thing ultimately turned off a lot of critics, no matter that Michael made some very good music during those years (and still makes interesting music, but now he's singing strictly cowboy songs--his has got to be one of the more fascinating careers of any contemporary artist). The bigger picture, though, is that the Steve Earle book is the second in a series I developed titled "Lives in Music." The first was "B.B. King: There Is Always One More Time," which was published by Backbeat this past September, on the day of B's 80th birthday. The Lives in Music concept evolved out of my frustration in working on the third and fourth editions of the Rolling Stone Album Guide. When I did editions one and two of the RS Album Guide there was no Internet, no instant reviews of new albums, no immediately accessible archives of reviews and related information about catalogue albums. But in working on the third and fourth editions, I was acutely aware that by the time both books were published they would be out of date, for one, and second, that there were fascinating stories to tell about artists who had broad, deep and influential catalogues, strictly from the standpoint of investigating how specific albums were conceived and then realized in the studio. I've been fortunate to befriend a lot of wonderful producers over the years, and even more artists who produce themselves, or could if they chose to do so, but at least approach the studio as a creative tool and thoughtfully consider the construction of their art into a recorded entity. So the idea for Lives in Music is that with the input of not only artists, but producers, engineers, and key musicians as well, an in-depth portrait of an artist's musical odyssey would emerge, one that too often gets bypassed in traditional biography. Even B.B.'s autobiography, which I quite like, only touches on a few of the great albums he's cut in his 50-plus-year recording career (not that he could have talked about 'em all, but there's barely even a mention of producer Stewart Levine, who was behind the board on six of the best albums B's ever cut, including a Grammy winner and two with the Crusaders that reignited his career in the late '70s). So the Lives in Music series is meant to correct that oversight in music biography--after all, a couple of generations from now, or more, what will be most important about Steve Earle? The marriages (now totalling seven)? The drugs? I'd like to believe it will be the music. So I deal with the marriages and the drugs in the book, because Steve's life is inseparable from his art for the most part, but I didn't wallow in those sordid tale as did the author of the other Earle bio, "Hardcore Troubadour," with which I have major issues. But specific to your question, Earle's life does afford a writer an opportunity to take a critical look at not only the east Texas singer-songwriter scene of the early '70s, but the Outlaws, the New Traditionalists and the rise of Americana as a movement (and the attendant diminution of the country mainstream into '80s-style power ballads and...well, we all know what it's become, don't we?), because Steve stepped into all of them in his own way. Sharon Lynne, I interviewed Steve only once, when he was doing press for "The Revolution Starts...Now." I met with him at the Artimus office, and we had a good half-hour interview, which is published unabridged in the book. After we finished, I gave him a copy of my Carl Perkins biography ("Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly"), a copy of James Talley's new CD (at James's request; they're friends), and then explained the concept of the Lives in Music book to him. He was enthusiastic about it, indicated his willingness to participate in more interviews for the book, and even told me to call Tony Brown right off the bat (Tony's an old friend of mine, and I had already been in touch with him and had set up interviews). I tell the story in more detail in the Acknowledgements, but the short version is that Steve then made himself unavailable, to the point of disavowing ever having met me or knowing anything about the book. Of course I have him on tape talking to me, but no matter. His sister Stacey intervened on my behalf, but to no avail; ditto for his co-producer and business partner in E-Squared, Ray Kennedy, who is absolutely vital to the post-rehab story of Steve Earle. Ray, not wanting to undermine his relationship with Steve, cut off our interviews after one terrific hour and a half session, which at least allowed me to get some background on him that had never been published before. Later on Steve relented to the point of telling his parents to talk to me if they wanted to. Fortunately for me they did, and they could not have been nicer or more forthcoming; plus they sent me a huge box of their family memorabilia and clippings dating back to the start of Steve's career, a lot of stuff I could never have found otherwise, including a local story about the town of Selma, Texas, objecting to its characterization in "Guitar Town" as a speed trap town, although a number of Texas state officials interviewed in the piece said they would continue to be very careful when driving through that town. So in the end it worked out, but I'm not pretending it wouldn't have been better for me to have some fresh input from Steve, and especially to have Ray Kennedy's take on the recordings he's worked on. About the body odor, even Steve's parents commented on that, and it was one of the first things Tony Brown noticed when he was introduced to Steve--I guess it would have been hard to avoid it, because from all accounts it was profound. As for the women falling for him, well, Steve is a very charming and gracious person when he wants to be, and he's also an incurable romantic, as is evident from the tenderness in his love songs. I guess that bad man with an angel's heart is a tough combination to resist. But in at least one instance, with his second wife, it was drugs that brought and kept them together, until Steve tried to clean up his act and dumped her when she went deeper into addiction and started hanging out with (and presumably sleeping with) her dealer. Let me tell you, it was so difficult keeping track of Steve's marriages and verifiable love affairs that I had to construct a flow chart to keep track of where I was in the narrative with respect to his love life. Remember he married one of his wives twice (leading his brother in law, Stacey's husband Mark Stuart, to refer to that one as the "Grover Cleveland" of his wives for serving two non-consecutive terms in office--it does get comical after a point), and the ex's had a tendency to keep popping up over time. I recall Joe Hardy telling me about a scene in the studio when they were recording "The Hard Way" album when two ex-wives at once were in the studio hammering Steve, and his bride to be, Teresa Ensenat, was there too. Never a dull moment with Steve back in those days.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 9 Mar 06 10:34
(Any of you reading this on the World Wide Web who are not members of the Well should feel free to contribute to the conversation by sending comments, questions, or tablature to us to post for you at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks!)
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Thu 9 Mar 06 14:09
(fwiw, I thought of Selma as a speed trap town too when I lived in San Antonio from 1990-96!) I was actually going to ask about how you kept some of the very complicated information on Steve's life straight so it's interesting and yes amusing that you had to have a flow chart of his love life. Another thing that has greatly impressed me throughout the reading of the book is the very vivid, accurate, and engaging way in which you describe the actual music. It would seem to me to be very difficult to convey songs to people who are not listening to them at the time, or who haven't heard them, but you do that so well. I read parts of the book while listening to music, not all Steve Earle music, but just a random mix of country that I happen to have, and occasionally it would all just match up so beautifully, something about the country style that you were explaining would come up in the text just as some old Waylon Jennings or Guy Clark tune would come up on my ipod and it was like you were right there giving commentary on that very piece. I don't guess there's a question in there, but it was a really fun way to read your book, and it also encouraged me to keep a running list of additional songs and artists you mentioned that I want to download.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Thu 9 Mar 06 15:56
Holly, that's a humbling compliment. You got exactly what I was trying to do in approaching the music in that way. There's a reason songs work on us the way they do, and my breakdown of the elements that come together to make a song resonate with us is something I don't see enough of in music journalism, except in serious, academic or musicological treatises. I can barely play guitar myself, but I know what moves me in a song, and I've tried, in Steve's songs, as I did with B.B.'s in the book prior to this, to let a reader who might be similarly "afflicted" understand what's going on on a track that makes it all come together, sometimes in a transcendent moment that stays with us the rest of our lives. Some readers might think I spend too much time on, say, "Johnny Come Lately," in the 10,000 word chapter on "Copperhead Road," but I think that's one of the most amazing songs I've ever heard--about 30 years of American history compressed into three minutes or so. And typical of Steve's songs, he makes it resonate by being specific--the references to Camden Town, to the London Blitz, to the Vietnam Vet coming home to San Diego unheralded, whereas his granddad had landed in San Antonio in his WWII homecoming, hailed and welcome as a hero. And then to get the very erudite and insightful Philip Chevron of the Pogues not only to recount the "Johnny Come Lately" session from an insider's perspective but to also validate my historical perspective on the song was more than I could have hoped for. As well, I'm glad to hear the book has led you deeper into the music, because that's at least part of the point, to inspire a reader to go back and, in Yo-Yo Ma's words, "listen with new ears." I try to do that as a matter of course, given that it makes my job more interesting if I'm open to hearing something from a fresh point of view, and it nourishes my soul when I do find something I haven't heard in its full glory before, as a result of being explosed to another fan's or writer's take on it. In the case of the music I deal with in the Steve Earle book, wow, what a wealth of great and meaningful tunes to explore by Steve and all the others who work their way into the narrative.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 9 Mar 06 21:11
You know, I *love* Johnny Come Lately, it's one of my favorite songs on the album and I was happy to see how much you appreciated it, but I have an issue with it -- I can't get the timeline to work out right. How could a guy flying in, say, 1941 have a grandson who could fight in Viet Nam by, say, 1970? I must have missed the part in the acknowledgements about the single Steve interview, sorry. I also agreed with the way you linked Steve up with Bruce Springsteen; he always struck me as being more in the Bruce/John Mellancamp/etc. camp than in country music per se. I seem to recall reading a few years back that he was pretty much saying he wasn't a country music artist any longer though I don't recall whether he was calling himself a folksinger or a protest singer or what. How did the Nashville and country music establishment take that? or did they just never warm up to Steve at all and they're glad he's gone?
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Fri 10 Mar 06 11:06
I also love Johnny Come Lately and was not bothered at all by how much time you spent on it. I listen to it at least a couple of times a week I'd bet lately, and I still always get a surge of emotion at "how he married grandma and brought her back home, hero throughout this land" followed by the Vietnam soldier's anticlimactic homecoming (I'm getting that surge right now just thinking about it!). It's such a brief moment in the sweep of this song that at first seems like it's simply a particularly well-written "greatest generation" type paean, but it brings it all together. I love how Steve Earle's songs can be political without being heavy handed, political in the way that political issues touch individual lives through the stories in those lives, which is the way politics really works for people anyhow. It's interesting to me that you don't really play guitar and yet conveyed all the aspects of the music, including guitar solos, so vividly. I think in a way not being an expert player worked to the benefit of the writing, because you approached it as a listener would, in a not terribly technical way, which is of course how most readers who are not musicians themselves will approach it. I'm also interested in the answers to Sharon's questions above. I always felt that the problem with the way that the music business sees Steve, as well as other artists who work across genres or combine them in their work, is that he doesn't fit into a neat category. Obviously this is a problem throughout the music industry that has been discussed in depth, but I think there's also the political aspect to it. Even when his music does fit with into the Nashville vein his politics do not jibe with what people expect from that category, so it creates a discomfort.
Joyce Richards (joyceincali) Fri 10 Mar 06 19:49
I run the Steve Earle Trade List over on Yahoo, tho we've been offering other artists' shows the past six months or so because he hasn't been doing much --still on the honeymoon, I guess. Also, imo he sold out when he sold his song to Chevy,so I didn't object when people started offering other artists' shows. If anyone wants on that list, just shoot me an email. Btw, "Artemis Records" is spelled ARTEMIS.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Sun 12 Mar 06 15:36
I think you have to grant Steve artistic license with regard to the timeline on "Johnny Come Lately." If his grandfather had already has a son when he went to war, then he could have had a grandson who fought in Vietnam, but clearly gramps meets his bride to be during his service days. My advice is, don't think too hard about the timeline and continue to enjoy the power and historical sweep of the narrative Steve constructed, which is what you seem to be doing already. I came across more than one interview with Steve during that time when he was claiming he was no longer a country music artist, and after spending so much time with him, figurativel if not literally, I think the explanation for that is that he was ticked off at Nashville at that time and was saying whatever he could to alienate the country music establishment and country radio, because he wasn't getting the support there that he felt he deserved. Today I believe Steve's relationship with the Nashville establishment is almost nonexistent. He and Ray Kennedy exist in their own world, make records the way they want to hear them, and don't kowtow to country radio in the least. Steve is very media savvy, and knows the basic questions most interviewers are going to ask about his albums and prepares stock answers that he gives to every reporter. In a lot of the interviews for "Revolution" he remarked that he is "an unapologetic leftist," that Condi Rice "has the usual fashion challenges of most Republicans," and so forth. But at root I think Steve really wants to be considered a country artist, because the story telling tradiition in country is closest to his heart as a songwriter, and I think he views country as the most effective vehicle for telling the human stories, and certainly the historical stories, that most engage him as a writer. But he will bite the hand that feeds him and bite it savagely when he feels he's been dissed, whether he has in fact been dissed at all. As an aside, I'll tell you I've learned in poring over hundreds of interviews with Steve, and from my own one experience with him, that he's not good at freelancing when he's asked a question he didn't anticipate. In my case I threw him when I mentioned how his grandfather had once again shown up in a song, and he basically kissed off that remark in a one- or two-sentence response and steered the conversation back to something he was prepared to discuss. And in studying the transcript of his encounter with Bill O'Reilly, I was struck by how inarticulate Steve became when O'Reilly challenged him, and kept the pressure on for him to explain positions he had taken in other interviews. By the time I got around to interviewing Steve, he had already shaped an excuse for his poor performance on the "Factor" by saying it was a forum as rigged as pro wrestling and that one of his key responses had been edited out. I didn't judge him in the book on his performance, but I think he got whupped by O'Reilly because he's spent too many years sticking to his script. Now, he's not the only artist who does that--more do than don't--but whereas someone like Rodney Crowell relishes an intellectual challenge to ideas he espouses in his songs, Steve is all about controlling that environment and, for lack of a better term, staying on message.
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Mon 13 Mar 06 08:17
Some people are just not as good at articulating political, or come to think of it, emotional positions. Interesting though that he is so eloquent in song and so much less so in person. I suppose that a song can be prepared quite meticulously and is not at all off the cuff. Or perhaps it's the different subject matter, or a combination of factors. Can you talk some about what you know about Steve's songwriting process, esp as far as the lyrics are concerned? I'd noticed the timeline issues in Johnny Come Lately, and it's usually the kind of thing that really bugs me but somehow it doesn't in that song, for the reasons you named. Did Steve's habit of using stock answers add to the difficulty of writing about him, especially given his inaccessibility to you personally while you were researching the book? It seems like it would. BTW I'm sorry that I didn't ask more questions over the weekend. I had serious internet issues until this morning.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Mon 13 Mar 06 13:42
Holly, I uncovered precious little about Steve's songwriting process--even a recent interview in "American Songwriter" didn't get into any nuts and bolts talk about the process. That said, it's still possible to get a rough idea of his process from hearing others talk about their encounters with Steve. For instance, Ronnie McCoury talks about how he indoctrinated Steve in the bluegrass world, explaining that there are certain types of songs vital to the bluegrass repertoire, including ghost stories. The next night, when Ronnie's bluegrass side project was playing at the Station Inn in Nashville, Steve showed up and played him "The Mounain," and said, "There's your ghost story, son." And apparently he wrote "The Pilgrm" the morning they recorded it. So when he has an idea he can clearly develop it quickly and find a song structure for it. Also, it seems he doesn't show anyone "song sketches." When he's recording or bringing a new song to someone, his demo is a fully conceived entity, a blueprint he designs for his accmpanying musicians to follow pretty much to the letter. Beyond that the trail doesn't exactly go cold, but it becomes harder to pick up, owing to the paucity of interviews in which Steve is questioned about his process. I'm curious to know where the historical story-songs come from. Ben McCullough is hardly a well known figure, but Steve dug him out of history and wrote one of his more memorable early songs about him. And I know at one time Steve was heavily researching the Civil War and, like a lot of us Civil War buffs, was bowled over by Michale Sharaa's "The Killer Angels." I assume "Dixieland" springs from his reading at that time. But I sure would like to know who, if anyone, inspired the character of Kilran, who's telling the story, and why he focused on the 20th Maine and Col. Joshua Chamberlain, who is not so well known today but had one of the most celebrated careers of any of the War's generals. Steve's penchant for giving stock answers didn't make my job hard, but I do regret that we don't have more of his own voice in the book with some fresh takes on his recordings, especially the early ones. On the other hand, Steve's penchant for taking credit for everything maybe is less valuable than the reminiscences of estimable and selfless artists such as Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, Richard Bennett and Harry Stinson. I didn't find a single interview with Steve on the making of "Train A-Comin'" that was more revealing than the accounts I got from Peter and Norman, who had never been interviewed about their roles in those sessions; also Richard Dodd, who produced those critical first sides for "I Feel Alright" only got a passing mention in "Hardcore Troubadour," but his account of those sessions was maybe the most interesting of anyone's in the book, because it was the one time when a producer told Steve how they were going to work and brooked no argument from him, mainly because Richard didn't like working with drug addicts and he wasn't convinced Steve had cleaned up his act yet, given how bad Steve looked. Would Steve have admitted that the only way he got Richard Dodd involved was to play by Richard's rules? I can't say that he would have. Certainly Lauren St. John in "Hardcore Troubadour" paints him almost as an afterthought. Richard Dodd had never been interviewed about that time either, and he turned out to have one of the critical stories of the post-rehab period, since "I Feel Alright" was widely regarded by the industry, by Steve and by Ray Kennedy as his real comeback album. That said, I may not have much hard information about Steve's songwriting process, but whatever it is, "Dixieland" and the lovely, swaying Irish-flavored instrumental that follows it, "Paddy On the Beat," always bring tears to my eyes, still. Maybe we don't need to know any more than that.
a nose full of kafka (plum) Mon 13 Mar 06 14:29
I am very excited to hear about this book! Right now I am having a Steve Earle festival, just me and my laptop. I think he is just such a genius, and yes, especially love Johnny Come Lately. Also love his collaborations with the Del McCroury Band. Not so sure I still want to marry him, however. Maybe.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Tue 14 Mar 06 08:56
Well, Kafka, if history has told us anything, it's that Steve will be on the market again some time in the not-too-distant future. For the sheer beauty of the instrumental dialogue and the quality of the songs, Steve's one album-length venture with the Del McCoury Band, "The Mountain," and his one album with Peter Rowan and Norman Blake (and the late Roy Huskey Jr.), "Train A-Comin'," are real high water marks in his body of work. I hear from reliable inside sources that Steve wants to cut another bluegrass album and has contacted Tim O'Brien about re-assembling the Bluegrass Dukes for such a project. Of all the post-rehab albums, "The Mountain" remains his best selling disc. Since then each album has sold less than its predecessor, so there appears to be a commercial consideration at work in the decision to go back to bluegrass. I do hope he doesn't waste his time writing love ditties to Condi Rice or profane screeds aimed at the FCC. He can do better.
Low and popular (rik) Tue 14 Mar 06 12:38
I understand there was more than a bit of culture clash goingon when Steve cut the album with the McCoury band. Got any details to dish on that?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Tue 14 Mar 06 14:44
Low, for the first time in print Ronnie McCoury talks about the rift between Steve and Del, and yes, it was a cultural clash, generation gap, however you want to describe it. The album sessions went great, but the problems began when they got on the road together. Quite simply, Del could not abide Steve's foul mouth onstage--he doesn't come from a time or place where onstage cursing is countenanced, especially in front of the family audiences they were playing to at some shows where the McCoury band was the main draw. Steve has portrayed it as a dispute over money and billing, but Ronnie, who said he had read everything Steve had to say about what happened, set the record straight. So I got the McCoury version, and then, quite inadvertently, because I had not asked about it, Steve's father Jack Earle mentioned in passing in one of our conversations about Steve losing the McCoury tour because he wouldn't clean up his language on stage. I think the context for that was a conversation with Jack about his son's lifelong insistence on doing things his way, no matter the consequences. In the book, though, Ronnie says he and his dad have patched things up with Steve, and Ronnie even attended Steve's 50th birthday party (a scene that's in the book) and was introduced to Allison Moorer there. I sensed no resentment or anger on Ronnie's part at all, and he has only fond memories of the sessions that produced "The Mountain." As he put it, all the other stuff is "water under the bridge."
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 15 Mar 06 20:51
I was going to ask what you thought he'd do next and I see you've already answered me. :-) My former husband was in several bands and he used to say that the songwriters in the bands always did their best work when their love lives were in the tank. It was hard to see, however, any connection between what was going on with Steve personally and his work. What do you think? I'd have loved to have seen Steve Earle and Warren Zevon do some work together. I haven't finished the book yet but I'm curious as to whether he's been diagnosed with any sort of personality disorder, whether it be ADD or opposition disorder or whatever. Any thoughts on that?
Holly Tedford (hollyt) Thu 16 Mar 06 10:45
Listening to Copperhead Road and Johnny Come Lately, and rereading the sections of the book on them, got me thinking about the Scottish/Irish influences in some of his music. I know that there's a long history of those influences in country music, and it seems that in the old music the artists learned by listening to the music played around them by family or people in the community, live. More recently, there's not that same tradition of playing in family groups or in the community, not to mention how much people move around anyhow, the Earle family being no exception. So many artists now learn those influences not first hand, but from the recordings and playing of older artists who maybe did learn first hand. This is a long way of saying I'm interested in hearing more about those very old-time Scottish/Irish infoluences on Steve's music, and whether they came down to him directly from family members or indirectly from listening to and studying other country artists.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Fri 17 Mar 06 14:15
Sharon Lynne: I think a case can be made that Steve's love life has almost always been in the tank, until recently with Allison Moorer, but that's a new relationship. It's also true that he's written great love songs over the course of the years, and I tried to point out that those love songs are never moon-June-spoon expressions of fidelity and devotion; rather, they're most always expressive of a fatalistic attitude on his part that no matter how deeply in love he feels, he knows he's going to mess it up at some point, so darling please forgive me, it's not because I don't love you. Listen to "Fearless Heart." Richard Bennett quipped, "'Fearless Heart,' that's Steve Earle's take on love." I have no information that would lead me to believe he's been diagnosted with ADD or any kind of learning or personality disorder. He certainly has exhibited obsessive/compulsive behavior throughout his teen and adult years, but whether he is clinically obsessive/compulsive, I don't know. He has behaved very badly towards a lot of people who have helped him along the way, dismissing them when he feels they have no more to bring to his party (his first manager, John Lomax III, told me he thinks Steve left home without learning any "table manners"). It's some kind of character flaw to keep dumping on people when you feel they've outlived their usefulness to you, but other than selfishness, or boorishness, I'm not sure what to call it. Even with me, after he had agreed to do more interviews for the book, and even urged me to call Tony Brown and Ray Kennedy for interviews, he not only reneged on that agreement, but went the extra mile and disavowed having any knowledge of me or the book project. Maybe he forgot that I had interviewed him for barnesandnoble.com and had the interview on tape, including the first part of our conversation about the book project before I turned off the tape. In short, I met a lot of people who admire Steve tremendously as an artist but have extremely low regard for him as a human being. Holly: Based on what Steve told me, his interest in Scottish/Irish music, the roots of country music, came from his own research into country's history. He wasn't exposed to it in his home when he was growing up, and he had no direct contact with it during the early years of his career. I believe it was the Pogues who really set him on the path of exploring the Irish/Scottish link in his own music, and Philip Chevron, the Pogues' great guitarist and philosopher king, speaks eloquently to that topic in my interview with him in the book. Explore it Steve has, and I think more consistently than any other artist of his generation. Speaking of the Pogues, I'm going to see them tonight at the Nokia Theater here in Times Square. The Pogues on St. Patrick's Day! It don't get much better than that. And yes, I will wear a hardhat to the show. Except for Shane McGowan, the Pogues are sane and sober these days, but you never know about a New York audience on St. Patty's. Sane and sober may be too much to ask of that bunch. I'll be checking in over the weekend if anyone has any other questions about Mr. Earle and related matters.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 18 Mar 06 07:30
I have been listening to my Steve Earle CDs to go with this, including the newer ones that I'd bought but hadn't listened to much. Today I listened to Transendescent Blues. There's a couple of songs that are pretty much self-plagiarism -- Galway Girl is an obvious imitation of Johnny Come Lately -- but I was struck by how much he sounded like that 1960s ...geez, I forget the word people use for the genre, but the whole country/folk/rock/Graham Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers things. There's a couple of places where the songs sound like Dylan, and a couple that sound like the Byrds.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 18 Mar 06 08:54
Another thing -- something I've noticed over the years is a kind of paired good guy/bad guy thing of artists of a similar genre at a similar time in a similar ecological niche. I'm thinking of Rolling Stones/Beatles, Michael Jackson/Prince, etc. And I feel a similar pairing about Steve Earle/Toby Keith. Toby's got his bad boy side (cf. 'smoking weed with Willie') but he seems to be more accepted as a country artist in general, and while he's notorious for songs like Red, White and Blue, he actually identifies as a Democrat and has a bit of a protest side as well. Plus, ironically, it seems like Steve Earle's romantic songs are more the 'let's be together forever, or at least as long as it lasts' type, while Toby's got a number of "I'm just looking to get laid" songs. Another question -- what's the status of Steve Earle's kids? How many does he have, how old are they, what's going on with them, do any of them seem to show any indications of being musical? I gather Stacy Earle is his sister? I wonder how much attention she'd have gotten on her own, and does she have the same sort of reputation?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Sun 19 Mar 06 17:30
Steve wouldn't argue about the Byrds/Dylan influences, and a case can be made (as I tried to do) that the Beatles circa "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" are profound influences, lyrically and, with Ray Kennedy's help in the studio, sonically as well, especially on the album you reference, "Transcendental Blues." I don't know that I would term "Galway Girl" an example of self-plagiarism. It's a more traditional Irish song than "Johnny," which is, to quote the Pogues' Philip Chevron, "Irish music with a punk rock kick in the arse." "Dixieland" is closer in feel, sound and spirit to "Johnny," but it's also far more traditional than the latter. Both, though, are rooted in actual historical events and in the case of "Dixieland," Steve cites actual participants in the Civil War. I guess music needs and has always had the good buys/bad guys duality going on and yours is an astute observation about Toby/Steve being playing those roles in contemporary country. Yes, Toby is fully invested in and embraced by the country mainstream--industry and fans alike--whereas Steve is very much the outsider whose records probably aren't even promoted to mainstream country radio anymore, nor should they be. Toby's been fairly vocal in his career about the inequities of the Nashville system when it comes to breaking new artists, just as Steve was in his early years, when he regularly criticized country radio and even his own label for not getting behind his style of country music, which he felt was a harbinger of a new day for the genre and should be promoted as such. The difference is that Toby, whatever he says of a critical nature about Nashville and the industry, still plays the game. I met Toby once at a press meet-and-greet here in New York City, at which he was introducing some songs from his new album in a brief acoustic set with only his guitarist being along for the ride. I was looking forward to meeting him, because I have enjoyed some of his music over the years, but also because we are both former University of Oklahoma athletes--Toby was a football player, I played basketball. He couldn't have been more obnoxious and condescending to a fellow Okie, and he was surrounded by the sleaziest kind of ad agency execs imaginable (he apparently had just signed a deal to endorse some product), guys who normally wouldn't allow themselves to be seen in any kind of proximity to a guy wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans except that this one was a money machine for them. Now, Steve has sold one of his songs to Chevy for a truck commercial, but I'm willing to be that that deal was struck at arm's length, with Steve having little if any involvement in it, and not having any of those ad agency sleazes hovering around him. In fact the deal wasn't even officially announced. The commercial just showed up one day, and the fanatics at steveearle.net were howling unmercifully about it. To my knowledge, Steve has never commented. But I can tell you, he needed the money, because he always needs money. I don't have much information about Steve's children, except that the oldest, Justin Townes Earle (named after Townes Van Zandt), has designs on his own career as a singer songwriter, and does possess some raw talent as such. You can see him in the documentary "All American Boy," performing at a club. He's not bad. The other two have kept low profiles, and I'm not sure to what degree Steve is involved in their lives. There was a rumor circulating at the end of last year that Allison Moorer was already pregnant by Steve, but that appears to be unfounded. Yes, Stacey is his sister, and she's terrific. She and her husband Mark Stuart tour around as a duo--Mark's a first-rate writer and guitarist himself--and play a circuit of folk clubs in the States and in Canada, and they go to Europe a couple of times a year. Stacey has her own label, Gearle Records, and a website, staceyearle,net, where you can find out more about her and Mark's activities. I think Stacey would have had some kind of career even without the Earle name, because some of her songs are really exquisite. Mostly she writes about good love, bad love, and the ups and downs in relationships, and some have criticized her for having too narrow a focus. She says she writes what she knows about--she was a mother at 16, and that's the story of her life. She doesn't have much experience in the work force, and she's not political as such. But like Steve she's a born storyteller, and I think in time she'll offer some new wrinkles in her standard songwriting approach. She and Mark work very hard at their music, driving from gig to gig all over the continent, sometimes sleeping in their van, making their own records on a skimpy budget, and staying on the road most of the year. She and Mark claim they are doing exactly what they want to do, and are very happy with their lot in life, although they would like to get some fatter paychecks along the way. She doesn't try to gain any advantage professionally from being Steve's sister--in concert if she mentions him at all she'll say something like, "My brother said..." but I have never heard her mention him by name in the four times I've seen her perform live. Steve has been intermittently supportive of her and Mark's efforts, but he's also been, as Mark put it, "kind of a jerk" at other times too. They've all played together at benefits, but Steve has never offered to take them on the road with him as an opening act, which would be a big boost for his sister and brother-in-law. Nevertheless they have a close and caring relationship, despite the limits Steve seems to put on it. Seems like nothing is ever simple in the Earle family, and that's been true for a long, long time.
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