lonesome alt cowboy

by rick grant
Steve Earle is one of the best songwriters to come out of the post 1960-70s folk era. Earle’s influences include Kris Kristofferson, Terry Allen, Levon Helm and his mentor, Townes Van Zandt. He flew under the commercial radar for many years. Then, his 1986 debut album Guitar Town hit the country charts and coined the term “New Country” or alt-country.
Earle’s 2007 album, Washington Square Serenade, won a Grammy nomination and climbed high on the charts. It gave Earle a name among the alt-country devotees and radio play on Sirius satellite radio. Soon folk and country fans alike were lining up to see Earle’s concerts.
I became aware of Steve Earle while listening to HBO’s The Wire soundtrack. His haunting song (by Tom Waits) ‘Way Down in the Hole,’ that played during the intro, crept into my musical consciousness and wouldn’t go away. I was compelled to find out who wrote and performed it. Earle performed the song live on Leno a couple of years ago. Soon I was delving into everything Steve Earle. The song was on the Washington Square Serenade album, which is on heavy rotation in my car stereo.
Since I was already a fan of Townes Van Zandt, when I heard that Earle had recorded an album of his music as an homage to his late mentor, I was pumped. I logged on to Rhapsody and downloaded Townes immediately.
Clearly, Earle has an emotional connection to Van Zandt’s work. He named his son Justin Townes Earle and was a close friend and collaborator of Van Zandt during his musical odyssey, tragically cut short by his death in 1997 at age 52.
Steve lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village where he has a home studio. He records his own material and overdubs the tracks, then he mixes the final cut at the Sound Emporium and Room & Board in Nashville.
I called Earle at his home to ask him what he’s up to today. Currently, Steve is doing a record store tour, but he’ll soon hit nightclubs across the country to promote his latest album, the aforementioned Townes. Earle has found his spiritual home in NYC where he can touch, feel and be inspired by the electric pace and atmosphere of “living for the city.”
“In addition to my songwriting, I’m finishing a novel to be published next year,” says Earle. “The novel is about a defrocked doctor who’s a heroin addict. He supports his habit by performing abortions and patching up gunshot wounds. Two years earlier he was traveling with Hank Williams. When he gets loaded, Hank’s ghost shows up. It’s titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive… I’m also working on my radio show on Sirius Radio Outlaw Country.”
I also asked Earle his impressions after he recorded Van Zandt’s music. “When I did this record, I was surprised how much it sounded like Townes. This made me realize how much Townes has influenced me.”
While Earle’s an old hand at touring, these days he’s not completely at peace with the solitary life on the road. “I’ve been touring to make my living. But lately I’ve been off the road writing this book and doing some recording. My wife, Allison Moorer, usually tours with me to sing backup on some songs, but she’s taking some classes and is staying home for this tour. Yes, the coffee break is over, now it’s time to go out and make a living on the road. Normally, I’m comfortable on the road, but this time I won’t have Allison with me. So it will be like the old lonely days.”
Do your best to make the lonesome Steve Earle feel welcome in Jacksonville when he performs solo at the Florida Theatre, Sunday, June 14th.