By the early Eighties, the outlaw country movement was running out of ammo, its iconoclastic insurgency armed with angst and attitude grinding gears. Artist including stellar genre talents Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson Johnny Cash (which four made two fantastic albums later, in the Nineties, as The Highwaymen), Jerry Jeff Walker, and Guy Clark had, in the early Seventies, alienated by the Nashville hillbilly Brill Building production line, founded the movement and made some of the best music of their lives, wresting back control of song writing from faceless backend machination, proudly espousing a creed of radical independence from the Music City in-crowd. However, in short order, inspired by them, a new generation of country artists sprung up, this time with support from a chastened country music bizniz.
Now, a-ways back then, under the pseudonym Ralph Traitor, I was a jobbing freelancer for UK music weekly SOUNDS. Thing is, SOUNDS’ readership pretty much landed on the side of metal and hard rock, leaving yours truly with both a crisis…and an opportunity: nobody else on the mag much wanted to cover ‘New Country’, so despite taking some flak, I also took a lot of flights to the States on the dime of major labels like MCA eager to convert the rock audience to their new upstart hayseed repertoire. As the totem pole of potential New Country stars grew higher – Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffiths being only two outstanding examples (and both of whom at the time I interviewed) – the one that for me was topmost was Steve Earle, who had climbed back from failure due in part to Nashville’s nefarious machinations to triumph with his debut album ‘Guitar Town’, a masterclass in song writing and post-outlaw swagger. A few years before he couldn’t get arrested in Nashville, God knows, but in 1986 Earle walked as a king: ‘Guitar Town’ topped the Billboard country album charts, and the title song reached #7 on the country singles charts. Earle was also nominated for two 1987 Grammy Awards, Best Male Country Vocalist and Best Country Song, for the title track. Not a bad haul for an artist who not long before had been told quite categorically by smug Nudie’s suits that his career would go nowhere because, apart from anything else, his voice stank.
It was my great good fortune, as the default SOUNDS outlier hack, to get ‘Guitar Town’ to review. What I heard blew my mind. Songs like ‘Fearless Heart’, crafted with all the care and attention, love and passion only countless prior career rejections and rebuffs could bestow by way of a perfect revenge, were nothing short of sublime and sung by Earle in the authentic voice beloved of his outlaw forebears.
My first shot at seeing Earle live was precious, a London showcase at little Dingwalls, attended by a few hip rocker early adopters, but notable to me for its audience comprised mostly of what were obviously hardcore country fans from all over the country making their pilgrimage to see what they recognised as the real thing writ large. That show, with Earle’s original band The Dukes – with whom he parted ways after his second album ‘Exit ‘O’ – was…what can I say? In an intimate venue, still with the status in the UK of only a prized secret, Earle and his band kicked ass so hard you couldn’t sit down for a week after.
Then for me my Earle odyssey got even better. I was flown by MCA out to Raleigh, North Carolina to interview New Country’s hottest talent. Having become jetlag comatose halfway through the gig, I was conducted thereafter groggy but wired to meet Earle on his tour bus where, to his bemusement, he did note, spotting me slumbering in an ill-lit corner. With characteristic generosity he let it slide that I’d clearly slept through a lot of his set and got talking. Gregarious, smart, warm, and funny, Earle was a pleasure to interview. A few years later, off the back of his third, great album ‘Copperhead Road’, I would encounter him again, when his commercial star was at its brightest but, dogged by his demons and bizniz junk, his transition from country to rock star began to stall. In ’87, though, with the newness of long overdue recognition and burgeoning fame running in his mercurial veins, Earle was truly on top of the world. Who knew then that, many further demons despatched later, in the Nineties he would grace The Wire – maybe the greatest television drama the States has produced – kinda replaying himself as the recovered junkie NA sponsor (and dig the knowing nod to outlaw country hero Jennings) ‘Walon’, and then go on for more years to this very day declaring for righteous country?
Without further hyperbole, then, from 1987 my first interview with Steve Earle, as published in SOUNDS. And, hey, if you don’t know ‘Guitar Town’, get it, and spin it right after this read. You will not regret it.
STEVE EARLE is the outlaw who's going to give Bruce Springsteen a run for his money. On the eve of his UK tour and the release of his new LP, Exit 'O’, RALPH TRAITOR joins him in America to talk about his country roots.
"Now grandaddy rolled over in his grave
The day that I quit school
I just sat around the house playin' my guitar
Daddy said I was a fool
My Mama cried when I said goodbye
You never heard such a lonesome sound
Now I'm standin' on this highway and if you're go in' my way
You know where I'm bound
Down that hillbilly highway."
– 'Hillbilly Highway'
"I USED to play around here for a living y'know, North and South Carolina, east Texas. That's where I made my living for a long time."
Steve Earle is sitting in another motel bar; the Ramada Inn, Raleigh, North Carolina to be precise. He's 33 years old, has a slight paunch, lanky, long brown hair and is an avid conversationalist.
Two years ago, Steve Earle was sitting in motel bars across America, and no one took any notice.
Now, a year after the release of his Guitar Town album, a record which has made a substantial impact on country music and steady inroads into the rock market, Earle has arrived. Raleigh, a college town, part of the "buckle of the Bible belt", is welcoming Earle tonight, honouring him as a good ol' boy made good.
Yet Earle is not a redneck. Far from it.
He's articulate and aware, the son of middle-class parents who raised him in San Antonio, Texas to be something and were dismayed when, at 14, he quit school and hit the road for Nashville.
Like the song says, "One more rollin' down that hillbilly highway".
And while 'Hillbilly Highway' isn't autobiographical, being about the north-south migration of auto workers due to corporate economics, it provides a handy reference point regarding Steve Earle.
The song reflects his major concerns, subject matter that mirrors the experiences of Everytown, USA with accuracy and reality, placing images before us which are simultaneously synonymous with life in rural and smalltown America and timeless.
IN THE early hours of the morning, seated now inside his tour bus, no less loquacious after a gruelling two-hour set, Earle qualifies his approach to 'Hillbilly Highway'.
"It's autobiographical in the sense that it borrows things from everybody, from my family. My grandfather wasn't a miner, he was a farmer and my father's an air traffic controller and it's like I'm one generation removed from the farm.
"I thought what I was doing was far too colloquial to work outside of the United States, but I discovered something in Europe: working people are working people and whether you live in a big or a small city doesn't make any difference.
"I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of a fairly large city, so I had both types of images to draw from... everybody at a certain age wants to get out of wherever they are. I ran away from home at 14. My parents just wanted me to stay in school and I wanted to play. I've always considered myself extremely fortunate cos I've always known what I wanted to do since I saw my first Elvis Presley movie when I was a very small child.
"I think those images are universal. I'm obviously not going to be able to write about those things forever. I was getting back to the way I wanted to write so I went back to where I came from as a starting point. 'Guitar Town' is mostly autobiographical and then 'Someday' and 'Good Of Boy' were written later, and 'Hillbilly Highway' started to hint at what's happening on Exit 'O (Earle's new album) which is an album about regular people and less about me...
"...Except 'I Ain't Never Satisfied' – that's about me."
'New Country', with which Earle is identified as a prime mover and innovator, has diverged from the Nashville songwriting establishment in that many of its leading lights, like Earle, write their own material, thereby returning control of style and content to the singer. For years performers were offered songs by their publishers, thereby creating a situation where the publishers came to dictate what country would in fact be. Historically, however, as Earle explains, this resurgence of the singer-songwriter is really the closing of a circle.
"It's very strange, actually, because country music is where people began writing their own songs as a matter of course. Bob Dylan remarked, in 1962 or '63, that, Tin Pan Alley is dead – I killed it. But it packed up and moved to Nashville and existed there 'til very recently. So, country became the new MOR music, music that's safe to play on the radio.
"Right now, Nashville is like it was when I first moved there, when the 'Outlaw' thing was going on. I'd go to 'pickin' parties' and there'd be everyone from my level up to Waylon Jennings and John Prine, Neil Young there. I had access to those people. Then cocaine became the drug of choice and created a caste system based on who could afford it and it killed these all-night guitar things; that's where I learned what I know.
"I consider myself to be a straggler of the 'Outlaw' movement in the '70s more than a part of any 'New Country', basically because it was a singer-songwriter movement. 'New Country', like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam... Randy doesn't write, and Dwight writes well, but he's a stylist, based on his vocal style and a definite sound. The songs dictate how my records sound."
STEVE EARLE, by a growing consensus, is the best 'roots' American songwriter to emerge since Bruce Springsteen.
Earle is candid about his admiration and respect for The Boss and plays part of 'Racing in The Streets' in his set as a counterpoint to his own car tribute 'Sweet Little '66', demonstrating his "right to be considered as a contemporary of Springsteen's" while contrasting their styles.
Earle has the same facility as Springsteen for taking even the most obvious lyrical or musical ideas and images and extracting their inmost essence in a way that transforms them, retaining the integrity of the influences chosen even as individuality is accentuated and commerciality guaranteed.
Furthermore, by insisting on recording digitally, a move which hasn't ingratiated him to purist critics, Earle has established his sound in a thoroughly modern context without sacrificing one iota of colouring and impact. Earle has his eyes set on the summit of his profession and, after ten years of knocking around Nashville, mostly on closed doors, he isn't about to compromise now that, as he says, "everyone would invite me to parties if they thought I'd go".
Not that Earle is an inverted snob, mind you. On the contrary, he's disarmingly open, speaking about his parents and children with a warmth and openness which indicates that he is a person who has deep roots, roots he likes to keep well-nourished and within reach.
In every way Steve Earle respects and maintains his influences, a point he is anxious to put across.
"Don't deny influences. Like, I made rockabilly records for a few years (a compilation of Earle's rockabilly singles for CBS has just been released, entitled Early Tracks) and that definitely shows in what I'm doing. I grew up listening to ? And The Mysterians and The Sir Douglas Quintet, so there's Tex-Mex things in there. I started out as a folk singer, and that's there, too. I'm a big fan of very hard country and that gets into my singing a lot.
"To me country and rock 'n' roll have never been mutually exclusive. I mean, when the Everly Brothers were makin' records they didn't know they were rock 'n' roll; they thought they were making hillbilly records for a younger audience. I need the country radio base and I'm keeping it so far, with the new album. But The Dukes (Earle's band) is a rock band, it's rock 'n' roll but I'm a country singer.
"Stylistically I'll always be a country singer cos I'm always gonna talk like this," he says with his pronounced Southern twang. "I don't emulate very many rock singers. All the licks I steal are from country singers, from George Jones and Buck Owens more than Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen."
POLITICS IS one area where Earle is personally knowledgeable but lyrically may seem circumspect.
On closer examination, however, Earle is clearly committed to boosting the cause of working people, striving to communicate as simply as possible their joys and sorrows without being in any way patronising.
"One thing that goes a long way, especially in times like these, is empathy, just to have that rallying point and feel like you care," Earle says. And goes on to outline his views on the common conservatism of the States and Britain, revealing him as a pragmatic liberal, not given to grandstanding but certainly unafraid to take the side he feels is just.
He calls himself a patriot but rejects those who would call 'Guitar Town' xenophobic. Like Springsteen with 'Born in The USA', Earle has been misunderstood by some as a Reaganite. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Nothing will change much until we get rid of the conservative regime here. Y'know, we're the bullies and we have been for a long time and the elections coming up in my country and in Britain are the most critical elections for a long time.
"I make political statements at a very grassroots level. I don't think the average person cares beyond how it affects them on a day-to-day basis cos they just don't have time to sit around talking about politics. They come home tired... their version of politics is what they glean from watchin' an hour of television in the evening.
"The one thing that irritates me is the chauvinism that's too fast to label someone who's basically just working class as a redneck and that happens in your country, too. It's like, they’re ignorant and that's the way they're gonna stay, and that's just not true – they're basically good people who just don't have enough time to assimilate enough information to really and truly understand why the economic and political situation is the way it is.
"I get more and more involved in my politics all the time because it would be irresponsible not to. I got people listening to me. I worked for a long time to get this way and the people who buy my records are working-class and they feed my kids and they need to be educated and encouraged to vote, to get over their apathy."
But isn't it true that music like yours is primarily a source of escapism for these same people?
Earle pauses for a moment and then starts up again more passionately.
"What we had before in country was music that wasn't about anything, and they escaped but, man, look... this is not art with a capital 'A', it's pop, by definition disposable art. It's not gonna last forever but what is gonna last is whatever social impact it has... and music is very powerful. I think rock 'n' roll shaped the last generation of Americans. What happened to the generation after the baby boomers is that times weren't too good and they were very scared the American Dream wasn't gonna be there when they graduated and so we had these young Republicans voting for Reagan and Nixon ..."
STEVE EARLE is a 'true believer', guided by instinct and some discriminating ideals that set him up as a solid figure on a landscape populated largely by ghosts.
He's been around, drunk himself stupid a lot of times, been through a few marriages and come out of it all with a resolve and clarity that makes his intention ironclad.
The accolades are pouring in now, sure, but years ago when Earle was on the short end of one stick after another was when his spirit was forged. Once Elvis was going to record one of his songs but died too soon to do so. That, and other, disillusionments stole from Earle, time and again, the success that has been "non-stop since Guitar Town".
He says that he "doesn't know what I would have done if I hadn't pulled this off" and means it. But listening to the archetypal Americana of Guitar Town and Exit 'O there's really no doubt that Earle is the real thing and he's here to stay.
"LOOK AT me, I had all the advantages. My father was middle class, probably just over the edge to upper middle class. He had enough kids that we were never rich by any stretch of the imagination – I remember that a guitar I was bought one year for Christmas was repossessed. I mean, they got in some real bad financial trouble for a coupla years with credit cards, y'know they'd just come out – but I, because of being so determined to do this, started out with nothing. I never made over 7,000 dollars a year in my whole life and I had a lot of years where I made, like, 15 hundred dollars y'know, until last year, and I'm probably gonna make a couple hundred thousand dollars this year and its major culture shock to me. I don't need to worry about feeding my kids for the first time in my life – I got insurance, I can afford it if they get sick..."
Earle continues, keeps right on talking, and when he later says that he is the new Nashville establishment, meaning himself and his 'New Country' peers, his pride and gracious sense of vindication is evident.
Steve Earle is picking up the biggest paycheck of his life this year and, yes, he's earned it.
© Ralph Traitor, 1987
Interview © Ralph Traitor, 1987
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