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inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #0 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #1 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #2 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #3 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #4 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #5 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #6 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #7 of 33: 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 inkwell@well.com . Thanks!)
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #8 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #9 of 33: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #10 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #11 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #12 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #13 of 33: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #14 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #15 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #16 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #17 of 33: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #18 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #19 of 33: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #20 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #21 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #22 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #23 of 33: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #24 of 33: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.267 : David McGee on Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet
permalink #25 of 33: 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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