THE BALANCE COMES DUE SOMEDAY:
A Conversation at the Crossroads
By Dave Rayburn
There have been many legends in music. The iconic names, faces, and stories from previous generations tend to leave their mark, in some fashion, on those who pay careful attention. The casual listener will, no doubt, acknowledge and appreciate a chosen song as it plays out on a radio in the background. But for some, the debt runs much deeper. There is the gratitude of education and the unraveling of the secrets of a craft that make one great. A songwriter’s growth, accomplishments, failures, and constant evolution are fueled by first-hand experiences and the influence of one’s surroundings.
The blues, as a genre, often comes with its own unique regional branding and flavor, but there is a lot of history involved. I once heard the late Kim Fowley advise, “Forget Aerosmith. Steal from the guy that they stole from, and then steal from the guy that he stole from. Then, you’ll find the root.” Doing your homework for the sake of authenticity was his point. Such lessons can come in many forms. For Steve Earle, some of the more important lessons came by way of becoming an early protégé of the great Townes Van Zandt. This experience helped fashion Earle into one of the most masterful American songwriters of our period. In the decades since, Earle’s credibility has been carried by the storied life that he has lived and continues to write about. His core values and strong, unwavering beliefs remain in-tact. His three Grammy Awards further back his relevance in the music world today. He is constantly moving forward, expanding his horizons not only in music, but in everything from film, television, radio, literature, and beyond. On February 17th, Steve Earle & the Dukes are set to release TERRAPLANE on New West Records, the follow-up to 2013’s THE LOW HIGHWAY.
On the heels of his recent residency at New York’s City Winery, Steve took time out of his touring schedule to discuss the direct roots of this new album, his thoughts on the vinyl resurrection, and what the future holds for him as a creative soul.
DAVE RAYBURN: TERRAPLANE is a blues record. The styles encompass everything from early country-style Texas blues all the way up to more modern electric blues. Can you recall the first blues music that ever caught your attention while growing up? What was it? When was it? And, where were you?
STEVE EARLE: It was pretty early, because I was 13 years old in 1968 and just moved to the south side of San Antonio. I had been in a situation that was relatively cool by Texas standards on the north side of town. Back in the south side of town all the kids still wore cowboy clothes and greased their hair back and listened to country music for the most part. They listened to some pop, but they mostly listened to country music. And they danced. You know, they did the two-step thing. I was just a fish out of water and I ended up in this very small group of people in the eighth grade who were eighth and ninth graders. They were so polarized in that atmosphere that they had a blues band that they’d started and they were looking for a singer. And, you know, we played maybe three gigs… all of them at one of the two teen centers over at Kelly Air Force Base, which we were right outside the gates of. We practiced like most bands, I think. We practiced all the time. It was a great time to be in a blues band because in 1968, HERE COMES SHUGGIE OTIS came out. EAST-WEST came out. You had Paul Butterfield and the Electric Flag. You had the first Johnny Winter record on Imperial. THE PROGRESSIVE BLUES EXPERIEMENT came out, and we were in Texas. And at the time, the first Led Zeppelin record, which we saw, and TRUTH, the first Jeff Beck record… oh, and ELECTRIC MUD.
DR: Ah, the Muddy Waters psychedelic blues classic!
SE: That was sort of my introduction to the Chicago stuff… backtracking from ELECTRIC MUD back to the original Chess stuff. And then the second concert I ever went to was Canned Heat who was one of the most undersung and underrated American bands in a lot of ways. Those two guys were kind of the Blues and R&B record collectors in California, Al Wilson and Bob Hite. They knew their shit and they could both play. They were both great harp players and both great singers. And Al Wilson was a monster fucking slide player. He did stuff that I never heard anybody else ever do. And, being from Texas I also heard the 13th Floor Elevators and the Moving Sidewalks. You’ve got to understand, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Moving Sidewalks, at one point, lived in the same house in Houston. I mean, you just have to think in terms of Roky Erickson and Billy Gibbons being in the same house. Between Canned Heat and the first two ZZ Top records, the sort of psychedelic element in it is very much part of the blues to me. So, that’s why that’s sort of included on this record too. THE HOWLIN’ WOLF ALBUM was one of my favorite Chess records. There’s something special about those very first Howlin’ Wolf sessions, the ones that produced “Smoke Stack Lightning” and all of that. They’re great sounding records for one thing. They’re every bit as good sounding as Beatles records. There’s nothing really primitive about them as recordings. They’re kind of hi-fi. They were recording exactly what was happening in the room. This record is about the Chess records, the first two ZZ Top records, and Canned Heat.
DR: A lot of folks are already chiming in that this is a “break-up album”. Certainly, some of those elements are present on TERRAPLANE. In fact, “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” is somewhat of a celebration of the same freedom that inflicts the heartbreak in a song like “Better Off Alone.”
SE: I think they’re the same song, you know what I mean? There’s the honest aspect of the blues which is about how you really feel and then there’s the part of it that’s all blustered (laughs). So, those songs are very traditional in that sense.
DR: Would you say that writing songs like this is more of a therapeutic, personal healing process or simply the result of a refined songwriter observing and recalling what he has seen?
SE: I think it’s always coming from a personal standpoint, but the job is empathy. It’s not so much what happens to me. What matters is whether it’s happened to somebody else or not. “Little Rock ‘N’ Roller,” a song on my first record, it’s like… Johnny Cash came all the way across the state the night that I met him to tell me that he liked that song. And truck drivers come across the room to tell me they like that song. They’re relating to it for the same reason… that they’re gone all the time and they have kids. So, that’s what the job is. The job is empathy. But yeah, I may have made this record when I did, partially because of what was going on in my life, but I also made it partially because I had the guitar player and band to do it. Keep in mind, it’s not anything new for a singer-songwriter to make a blues record. Bob Dylan did it for the first time in 1964. And every record he’s made since, with just a handful of exceptions have been blues records. Maybe not NASHVILLE SKYLINE and maybe not BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, but they’re nearly all blues records since then.
DR: “Tennessee Kid” is an intense, dramatic tour de force. Echoes of John Lee Hooker and that Canned Heat chug underpin your sermon-like delivery of a story not too unfamiliar. It’s absolutely brilliant. With Robert Johnson being name-checked within the lyrics, could this be seen as a sequel to the classic “Cross Road Blues”?
SE: It’s a retelling of the crossroads story.
DR: So then, who is the Tennessee Kid in this story?
SE: Me. Yeah, me. Sure (laughs). The deal is that the ending is part of a confliction, I guess. I don’t know. Or maybe not, because it’s not over yet. I don’t know. The point is, you are accepting the legend. You’re accepting the idea that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil to be as good as he was. Now, I personally believe that everybody was just jealous and other people made up the legend of the crossroads because it just pissed them off that Robert Johnson was that good. I think that if Jimi Hendrix had gone to London in 1936, you know, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend would have been going around telling those stories that Skip James and them were telling. The first person on record that said Robert Johnson sold his soul to learn to play the way he did, that I know of, was Skip James. And, you know, I think they were just jealous (laughs). But, it is the legend. I believe in God, but I don’t even know whether I even believe in the Devil except as a creature in… you know… I’ve invoked the Devil way more than God, and I’ve invoked God a lot in my songs. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily believe in that there’s a Hell or a Heaven. I definitely believe in God. I just came back from Hawaii. I went there to meet Ron Dawson. And, it was funny, there was a guy who works with this panel that was speaking with Ron Dawson and two Buddhists, and he said, “I just love to try to get Buddhists talking about God.” That kind of stuff is funny to me (laughs). I’ve never had a reason to declare a major, but I definitely believe in God. I’m a person of recovery; I kind of have to. But, the crossroads legend... this is like when I made the bluegrass record. There’s a certain amount of cojones, chutzpah, balls… whatever you want to call it that goes into tackling something. So, if you’re from Texas and you make a blues record, especially if you haven’t operated all of your life in that genre, you’re setting yourself up. There is no Los Angeles shuffle. There is no New York shuffle. There’s a Chicago shuffle and there’s a Texas shuffle. I knew Stevie Vaughan. I know Jimmie Vaughan, and I know Charlie Musselwhite. I share stages with all of these guys that are the leading practitioners today, so I’m going to hear what they think about this within the next year. I don’t read reviews, but I’m more concerned with what Charlie Musselwhite thinks. I’m not even sure I want to know, but that’s who I am trying to impress, is Charlie Musselwhite. This was also a second exercise in writing in iambic pentameter too. And that’s the relationship between the blues and Shakespeare.
DR: Earlier in the week, I saw some footage of Terraplane being pressed up at United Record Pressing in Nashville. Vinyl is currently experiencing a very healthy resurgence, and it must feel great to get another album out in this format. I hear they’re actually selling quite well for you on the road. How do you feel about the vinyl experience in general?
SE: I was a skeptic at first, and I just thought the audio quality was never my first focus even when I had a recording studio. I mean, CDs were okay with me because that’s what we had. But then, I didn’t have a turntable. Keep in mind, I’ve been married seven times. So, I’ve lost every record I’ve ever owned in whatever format it was on because of having to move a lot. I had a complete collection of Townes Van Zandt first issues on vinyl, and all that just got left. And it wasn’t because anybody took anything from me; it was because when my first wife and I split up I kind of fucked up and she left, and when I came home to pack my stuff up I just couldn’t quite make myself do it and I just broke down. I was only 22 or 23 years old, and I just left everything sitting in the house. And now I’ve got a guitar collection, and I’m getting ready to lose half of it. You know, I am a collector but I also don’t see any permanence in it, so I have a tendency to not want to get a turntable because I didn’t want to make space in my life for vinyl. I live in New York City, but I have recently gotten a turntable. Once we started doing vinyl, we started selling the fuck out of them, especially on the road. So, I got a chance to license the records that I made for Artemis because the company’s basically in receivership. And so I was able to negotiate a deal and manufacture those records myself. Brett Kennedy oversaw the mastering. We were very meticulous about it. Those records are now available on vinyl for the very first time. And, the Tony Fitzpatrick artwork is available 12”x12” for the very first time. Some of it… some of those pieces are bigger than the original pieces are. That stuff is very rarely over 8”x8” or 10”x10”… sometimes a little bigger, but not very often. So, we’re negotiating with Warner to reissue the Warner catalog on vinyl. It was some expense. It was about twenty-five grand out-of-pocket just to tool up to do those three titles, but I’ve always owned The Mountain. I’ve always owned that title, so we did that on vinyl some years ago. Now we have four titles available and I’m eventually going to try to get my whole catalog back out there on vinyl. Right now I’m concentrating on the stuff that’s never been available on vinyl. And then, I don’t know… I think I’ll pool the record collecting world and see. I think I may go back and try to reissue GUITAR TOWN and COPPERHEAD ROAD and those records on 180 gram because those were at the tail end of vinyl and quality was slipping, so it might be worth doing.
DR: Are there any plans for a 2015 Record Store Day release?
SE: Yeah! It’s “Terraplane Blues” by me, backed with “Terraplane Blues” by Robert Johnson on a ten-inch.
DR: Ah, so you did record it! I heard that you were considering it.
SE: I did. I just didn’t put it on this record. It’s a weird version. It’s just a keepsake. I didn’t play slide on it, but I used my 1927 wood body National on it and it sounds pretty great!
DR: Knowing your diverse involvement within just about every form of media and entertainment, are there any stones that have yet to be unturned?
SE: Well, I’m working on a musical that’s intended for Broadway. It’ll probably start somewhere off-Broadway, but that’s a medium that I haven’t worked with yet. I’ve got to finish the book that I’m working on now. And, Shawn Colvin and I are going to make a record together. In fact, that’s the next record after this one. It’s not like duets, it’s a band. We’ll probably write about a third of it. About a third of it will be songs of ours that we’ve recorded before, but us recording them together. And then there’ll be some covers. Buddy Miller’s going to produce it. We’re going to record it by the end of the year, and it’ll be out early next year. And then my next record is going to be a country record. It just sort of happened by accident. It’s half written. I actually wrote a couple of songs for Nashville. One of them made it into the show and the other one didn’t. It just sort of got me going on something that was kind of like… what if Jimmy Bowen hadn’t pissed me off? What would I have done after GUITAR TOWN? It’s going to end up sounding like HONKY TONK HEROES or something. It’ll end up sounding like a Waylon Jennings record (laughs). But, that’s the way it’s kind of headed. The Colvin record first. Meanwhile, I’ll be working on the musical.
Special thanks to Steve Earle, Tim Plumley, Stephen Schnee and Nick Kominitsky
& THE DUKES