STEVE EARLE PROFILED (2013): Only the strong survive

 |   |  2 min read

Steve Earle: Calico County
STEVE EARLE PROFILED (2013): Only the strong survive

Few musicians have gone as far and as wide in their career as Steve Earle. These days we know him as an actor (notably in the tele-series The Wire and Treme), playwright, novelist, short story writer and a political activist. Not to mention being married seven times (twice to Lou-Anne Gill, he's now with songwriter Allison Moorer) and doing record production.

He's just signed a book deal for a memoir and another novel.

Not bad for a guy whose career looked to be over just as it was getting started. Back in 1994 he served three months in prison for possession (heroin and coke).

For a guy who had delivered the thrilling rebel-rock album Copperhead Road in 88, it looked like he was on the downward spiral.

But his first album after his release, Train A Comin' in 95, saw him nominated for a Grammy and he made a steady climb back. Today Steve Earle is considered, at 58, to be one of the finest songwriters of his generation.

Through his albums you can hear links to rock'n'roll, punk, the Pogues (who guested on Copperhead Road), Bob Dylan (Calico County on his new album The Low Highway is a cousin to Subterranean Homesick Blues), dirty soul, folk (the Washington Square Serenade album), bluegrass (his traditional album The Mountain with the Del McCoury Band), his hero Townes Van Zandt whom he named his son after (the album of VZ covers Townes in 2009) . . .

If you wanted a snapshot of just how diverse he was in his taste you'd look to his compilation Side Tracks on which he covered Kurt Cobain's Breed, Dylan's My Back Pages, Lowell George's Willin' the Chambers Brothers' Time Has Come Today, Gram Parsons' My Uncle, the reggae classic Johnny Too Bad . . .

Yes, Earle has traveled far and wide.

His new album The Low Highway finds him with his touring band, includes two co-writes with Licia Micarelli whom he starred with in Treme and another song also performed in that series, and was co-produced with Ray Kennedy (as Twangtrust they produced Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with her).

Although this is his 15th studio album since Guitar Town in 86, he hardly seems short of ideas because he has that deep well of far'n'wide influences to draw on.

81lp_4PxjHL._SL1400_So you get Warren Hellman's Banjo (sounding beamed in from the Appalachians in the Thirties, or Dublin) and ballads (the down'n'out narrative of Invisible sounding close to Cobain unplugged) to country-rock (21st Century Blues).

But Earle is also in a reflective mood: the opener title track is about the rambling life which he too has lived, although in his liner notes he concedes now he's “an upscale gypsy, flying first class or rolling down the highway in a three quarter of a million dollar bus”.

It's that honesty which comes through in Earle's music. So when he sings dirty Dylanesque guitar rock'n'rage on Calico County or sounds world weary, battered and broken on Burnin' It Down and sings “I'm thinkin' of burnin' the Walmart down” you kinda believe him.

The final song Remember Me – addressed to his baby who might never see him when they are grown – also rings with a hard truth.

That's what has endeared him to a loyal audience.

In those liner notes he says he knows people are hurtin' on account of the economy and how grateful he is they turn out and pay hard-earned money to see him.

“I still have a job,” he writes, “when a lot of good people, through no fault of their own, don't.”

Long may we keep him employed.

Elsewhere has archival interviews with Steve Earle and album reviews here

Share It

Your Comments

sue - Apr 24, 2013

only the strong survive indeed! heard Billy TK doing a brilliant Copperhead Road a couple weekends ago in Dunedin. Yep still thrilling and remains a classic - look forward to hearing The Low Highway

post a comment

More from this section   Absolute articles index

THE BAND; ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE BOX SET (1994): Genius all boxed up . . . or maybe not all.

THE BAND; ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE BOX SET (1994): Genius all boxed up . . . or maybe not all.

For the record, I turned off the Band around the period they hit the cover of Time magazine in January 1970 - which is to say I never really got into them. This is no brag that when they went... > Read more

JORDAN REYNE INTERVIEWED (2009): Tales from the dark side

JORDAN REYNE INTERVIEWED (2009): Tales from the dark side

Jordan Reyne is one of New Zealand’s most challenging and innovative songwriters. Whether it be on albums under her own name or as Dr Kervorkian and the Suicide Machine, Reyne has pushed... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

Elvis Costello and the Imposters; Civic, Auckland. April 27, 2014

Elvis Costello and the Imposters; Civic, Auckland. April 27, 2014

Most artists understand their audience's requirement and expectation so include at least a smattering of their most famous or best loved songs. And so it was that Elvis Costello and his gifted... > Read more

Various: Belly Dance (Think Global)

Various: Belly Dance (Think Global)

Okay, okay. A belly dance album doesn't quite shake my tree either -- but put aside your preconceptions and what's here is a very good sampler of Arabic music from big names like Hossan Ramzy, the... > Read more