Texas-bred singer/songwriter Steve Earle is a rare breed. He has survived drug addiction and sobriety, myriad record label signings and droppings, and quite a few marriages and divorces. And he has documented his world and his woes in some of the best songs of the past few decades. Though he did some work before it, 1986’s Guitar Town heralded a break-through for Earle. In the years since, albums like Copperhead Road, I Feel Alright, Transcendental Blues, Townes, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, and The Revolution Starts Now have filled heads and hearts with ideas and emotions like few other songwriters working today. Politically outspoken, in his life and his art, Earle learned his craft from the masters — guys like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan — who often ran toward a challenge rather than away from it. Earle’s latest release, Terraplane Blues, finds him exploring a form that he’s loved since he was a kid.
I’m tempted to just talk issues, with everything that’s going on in the world.
There’s a lot going on, no doubt about it.
I take it you saw that the last Angola 3 guy — Albert Woodfox — got ordered to be released this week.
I heard about that. There’s going to be a lot of shit happening in the next six months or so. The death penalty is going to fucking die. The way we’re running prisons — the way we’ve been doing it for so long — is going to have to change. The economics are such … it really is one of those things like building a stadium. As big a sports fan as I am, building a stadium on the taxpayers’ dime … a very few people have been getting very, very rich from the way that we run our criminal justice system. It’s just costing the public lots of money for a long time.
I got kind of marginalized by some abolitionists because I’ve worked on this death penalty thing for so long. I said we needed to work the economic issue because it’s way more expensive and that’s what’ll eventually kill it because we’re a capitalist society. I’m a Socialist and I can be a Socialist all I want, but that won’t make this a Socialist country. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Agreed. But, hey, we might get a chance to vote for Bernie Sanders soon.
Yeah, I know. Bernie Sanders is going to do a lot of good. He’s going to do what Jesse Jackson and a bag of chips used to do when we needed it really badly. He’s already pushed Hillary Clinton to the left … which is saying something. Because, as far as I’m concerned, both of them — she and her husband — are Republicans.
Some people think that musicians and actors shouldn’t get political, but who else is going to challenge the idea of American exceptionalism?
The point is, it’s not anybody else’s business how political I get. [Laughs] I thought that was what freedom of speech was all about! Why am I disqualified because I’m a musician? And I’m also the musician that I am. It would be different if I was going out there and singing about stupid stuff, but I’m not. I’m pretty smart. And I was raised as a singer/songwriter in an era when singer/songwriters just did this. I don’t think I’ve ever been shocked, but I’ve been bemused, at times, that anybody would even suggest that I didn’t have the right to say whatever I wanted to in my art about politics.
I think artists are the conscience of a healthy society. That doesn’t mean every artist is obligated to make political statements and some artists should absolutely not ever make a political statement. Like, “Don’t help me here.” Some people should stay out of it. [Laughs] I write more songs about girls than I do anything else, when it gets right down to it, when you tally it all up at the end. But I write about what I write about. That’s what I was raised to do was to write about what I’m living in.
Your discography would be considerably thinner without the political content.
It would. And the only time anybody ever pissed me off criticizing me about this … I don’t read reviews, if I can help it. It’s a recovery thing. I just figured out it wasn’t healthy. If they don’t like you, it hurts your feelings. If they like you, you end up being Ryan Adams or something. [Laughs] So, it’s not healthy to read them, one way or the other. I did, before I got clean. And I don’t since, for the most part. Unless I fuck up and pick up the Times a couple of days after I play New York and I forget two days is the lag. Once I start reading something with my name on it, I can’t stop,– like anybody else. So, there’s been a handful of times — maybe one of Billy Joe Shaver’s hands full of times — that I read a review in the last 20 years, because I normally don’t do it.
The only time anybody really made me angry was when they suggested that … and it was to my face on NPR. It was NPR kind of covering their ass because their funding was being threatened. NPR was way harder on me about writing “John Walker’s Blues” than FOX News was, as far as the shows that I was actually on. It was just that they were worried about looking too liberal and what I’d done was sort of horrendous to some people. NBC was pretty tough on me — not terrible. Greta Van Susteren was pretty nice. But Steve Inskeep suggested that maybe it wasn’t that good of a song. It’s one of the songs I’m most proud of. I’m proud of every second of “John Walker’s Blues.” It wasn’t easy to write. And I’m not even talking about the decision to write such a song. That’s just about balls. You’re either going to do that or you’re not. I wrote that song, partially, because nobody else was going to do it. And I thought it was important. The actual craftsmanship involved in the song, I’m incredibly proud of. I think it’s a really, really well-written song. So that irritated me when somebody suggested that somehow you automatically compromise the level of your craftsmanship and your art as soon as you get involved in politics in order to make a square peg fit in a round hole or something. That’s only if you’re a lesser level of songwriter than I am and what I was raised to be. I had really good teachers and I really know how to do it.

[Laughs] Well, tell me about that time. Those 10 or 12 years before Guitar Town seem like your formative years. Does it all trace back to that time in Nashville or does it go back even further to the earlier Texas days?
It goes a little further back, but … This record I’m working on right now goes back to being 13 years old and moving to the south side of San Antonio. Everybody was more redneck than the kids I’d grown up with because the north side was into the Beatles and the Stones. Then I moved to the south side, and most of the kids were listening to country music and dancing to country music. I was really weird. They thought I had really long hair even though it wasn’t really long. I found a little pocket of kids that weren’t playing country music and they’d gotten so polarized by that experience and so isolated that they started a blues band. They were listing to Electric Flag, and Electric Mud came out, the first Johnny Winter record, in 1968. Canned Heat. That kind of stuck with me.
And then, as I got older, my dad managed to get away with never buying me an electric guitar, so I only had an acoustic guitar and I started gravitating toward more acoustic stuff because I couldn’t make my guitar sound … I wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix, but my guitar wouldn’t go along with that. So I gravitated toward Bob Dylan and Donovan and the acoustic Beatles and Stones stuff and the Kinks — the stuff that sounded like my guitar. That included some really high-quality country music that was around. The Johnny Cash Show was on TV back then. I saw Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Neil Young all in the same place. It was a very natural progression for me to end up being who I was. Then I heard about Townes Van Zandt as soon as I started playing coffeehouses. I heard he was over in Houston and sometimes Austin, but never in San Antonio. So I went to Houston.
What was it like, then, to be hanging out with your heroes? And, now, being a hero to others?
I still hang out with my heroes. It’s all relative. I played Carnegie Hall with Billy Gibbons who has been a hero of mine since I was 11 or 12. And I’ve toured with Bob Dylan. I did a show with Stephen Stills and Neil Young — Shawn Colvin and I did this autism benefit in L.A. a few weeks ago. I lived in Woodstock until recently. I just lost the house in the divorce because it had to be liquidated in the process. But my neighbors were John Sebastian and Levon Helm, and I could go to a Ramble anytime I wanted. So I still hang out with my heroes. It’s just one of those things.
And the part of it that’s about passing it along, that’s perfectly natural. That’s why I have a songwriting camp. That’s why I do that. There have been songwriters that have come up that I’ve thought were really great and, when I notice one, I usually run my mouth off about it.
We’re in danger, in the last decade or so, of it being a dying art, just being a real, live singer/songwriter. For a lot of reasons. Changes in the business. I think what everybody misses is the idea that rock ‘n’ roll and folk music being part of the mainstream was an anomaly that lasted a while. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have to be art. It became art because Bob Dylan wanted to be John Lennon and John Lennon wanted to be Bob Dylan, just as bad. I really believe the songwriters — the lyricists — can take credit for elevating rock ‘n’ roll to an art form, rather than just loud pop music. I think it’s all about Bob Dylan. Jimi Hendrix, even, is about Bob Dylan. He recorded Dylan songs more successfully than, probably, anybody else did and he’s, maybe, the most underrated lyricist of the era. That’s what people don’t think about enough. They don’t give him enough credit as a lyricist. Some of his lyrics are just beautiful. They’re really, really gorgeous.
I live in this neighborhood [Greenwich Village] that I live in on purpose. This is where my job was invented. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix lived within blocks of where I’m sitting right now. I believe in that kind of stuff, just walking in those footsteps to keep from forgetting about that.
The other lost art that’s dying is the folk singer with the message — the protest singer. We actually had Alynda Segarra from Hurray for the Riff Raff write an op-ed for us recently asking where are all the folk singers of her generation. Like, “Why aren’t people writing songs about Ferguson and Baltimore?”
Shawn Colvin and I did just write a song about Ferguson. It’ll be on our record that we’re getting ready to make. Just for the record, that’s coming. It’s called “Tell Moses” and it’s about this thing that happened, like when Selma came out. It connects Selma and Ferguson.
I think there were people out there and maybe the business didn’t give a shit. But I think, also, in almost all music, there’s this thing that’s happened is that the business has shrunk. It’s become naturally more crucial that the business concentrates on hitting the monkey bone. There’s nothing out there that challenges people and makes people want something. People left to their own devices — especially young people — will just think about nothing but sex and getting loaded. [Laughs] It’s just one of those things. Or money.
My generation was forced to think about death. I grew up during the Vietnam War and I think that’s part of it. I don’t think Bob Dylan, at his core, was a political person at all. And the idea that he changed, that’s not true either. He was just writing about what was happening around him. And then when people wanted to hang that mantle on him and make him do that, he rebelled against it. I totally get it. Not everybody writes protest songs because not everybody can. It’s not easy to do. And not everybody should.
Shawn doesn’t usually do that. It’ll be interesting to hear her collaborating with you in that way.
I think the deal with Shawn is, she’s way more introspective than I am, as a writer. So it’s kind of a good combination. We’ve written three things together — two of them just the two of us and one is a song that she and Julie Miller started together that’s really beautiful and I wrote the choruses. It’s all stuff that we sing together. The record is going to be about half new material and half stuff that you’ve heard both of us record that we sing together. Not quite half. And then a few covers. We’re starting November 30 in Nashville. Buddy Miller is producing because Buddy’s somebody we both have in common.
I just saw her play. She and Emmylou [Harris] played Nashville in the same week, so she had Emmy and Buddy do half her set with her.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. She whitewashes the fence like a motherfucker! If she can get somebody to do half the gig …
[Laughs] She’s always done that!
Yeah, she likes to get other people up there. She gets bored, tired of being out there by herself. I get it. I tour with a band and sometimes I want to just chuck it because it’s expensive and I could make so much more money. I’m a pretty good solo performer. So is she. She’s a riveting solo performer.
She’s a-MAZ-ing by herself.
She is. But the duo thing is really, really cool. We sang “Tell Moses,” that new song, for the first time at Stephen Stills’ autism benefit in L.A. and it really turned out great. It’s going to be a good record.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.