Steve Earle is here without his band The Dukes but he will be appearing at Bluesfest on the bill with Lucinda Williams.
By Brian Wise
“It’s kind of weird,” says Steve Earle when I say we are looking forward to seeing him back here, “because the last time I was there was by myself as well. I was with Paul [Kelly] right across the country. But there’s a thing about music there. Byron’s my favourite festival in the world, just in general. I like the town. I like the festival.”
“You know, the last time I saw Kim Wilson was at Blues Fest,” he continues. “The other opportunity I’ve had is to meet John Paul Jones and Donovan and I rode back in a van from Donovan’s show at Blues Fest several years ago. I was one of these voracious readers of the backs of album covers when I was a kid. So, I knew that JP was on all those records, and I interrogated Donovan and John Paul Jones. It was a long ride back to Byron from where the festival was in those day and I just interrogated them all the way back and found out where a lot of the bodies were buried. I like that kind of stuff.”
So, on the forthcoming tour will he and Lucinda Williams be on stage together at any point?
“I’m sure,” he replies. “We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. It pretty much always happens. But we’ve known each other a long time and since I’m coming solo it actually means that several things could happen. We’re both there for the duration. The show in Sydney that’ll be me opening solo and I’ll be there.
“You’ve probably seen me do this in Australia before when I was there. I’ll sit in with Lu and do a lot of stuff from Car Wheels [On A Gravel Road], like play rhythm guitar and harmonica and stuff. Because I produced the record and I played a lot of stuff on it. So, we’ll do that. But the difference is it’ll be with her band instead of with my band as it normally is.”
In the past five years, since his last visit here, Earle has released several albums of his own songs while putting out tribute albums to Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and, also one to his son Justin who tragically died two years ago.
“I’ll probably do at least one thing from Justin, one thing from Jerry Jeff,” says Earle when I ask about his repertoire for the tour. “Justin was a big deal in Australia. So, I tried to respect that. His best songs are as good as anybody’s. I can only do what I can do because I have to take care of me too and it’s a hole I get to walk around for the rest of my life, and it doesn’t get better. It’s not going get better. I at least knew that, so I’m not expecting it to which keeps it from becoming more toxic than it need be.”
I suggest that it must be emotional at times for Earle to performing in public the songs written by his son.
“Yeah, but it’s sort of the job too,” he says. “So, you can’t shy away from that kind of stuff. People don’t give a fuck what happens to me, but they care about what happens to me that might have happened to them. This job’s about empathy. I’m not the only person that ever lost a child. I try not to fall into the attitude that the one thing you’re not supposed to do is bury a child. Well, somebody’s doing it every day or somebody’s doing it right now. It’s a shitty club to be in – but it’s not a small one. Ram Das said – and this is specifically about losing a child – that our pain is their legacy. It’s disrespectful not doing what you’re supposed to be doing to try and not hurt. You’re supposed to hurt. And that’s just the way that it is, and you just have to deal with that.”
Earle is busy working on a number of other projects as befits someone who has a ridiculously frenetic work ethic. Having put aside a memoir (which he says was ‘boring me to death’) in favour about a book about recovery, he is now currently working on a novel and music for the stage play of the film Tender Mercies (having already recorded the music for Ghosts of West Virginia for the off-Broadway play Coal Country). The 1983 film starred Robert Duvall and was directed by Australia’s Bruce Beresford.
“I didn’t know that my crossdressing, ex-football star, African American prostitute was gonna kill my priest until the night that it happened when I was writing my novel,” he laughs. “I know what’s gonna happen when I’m writing. Something that has to do with my life gets boring; so, the only way I could make it work and make it interesting was to make it a book about recovery.”
“I’m also working more on Tender Mercies than I am on anything else, writing songs for that. But I do work on the novel on days when the melodies are sort of dead in the water. It’s a novel called Alamo Joe. It’s about a journalist from Texas in the 1880s, around the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, trying to track down this guy that had been living in New Orleans claiming to be a survivor of the Battle of the Alamo.”
Prior to our interview Earle had been organising a benefit concert for The Keswell School in New York which is dedicated to serving the needs of autistic children and which is attended by his youngest son John Henry. The latest line-up, which featured David Byrne, Kurt Vile and legendary Texas musician Terry Allen (who famously wrote ‘New Delhi Freight Train’). It was postponed late last year but is now taking place on May 15 at New York’s Town Hall.
“Terry and I have known each other a long, long time,” says Earle. I’ve known Terry a lot longer than David, but they’re friends for a long time. So, as soon as we got David, I called Terry and I just got to spend a week with Terry on a cruise ship. I wore my poor band out. I didn’t make ’em play when we got there, and they didn’t even come to the show. They sat in the bar and drank. But we played two shows with Willie [Nelson]. We did Arkansas, then we did Dallas, and there was supposed to be a night off before the 4th of July Picnic. So, I headed to Marfa, Texas, which is way out in West Texas for Terry and Joe Harvey’s 60th anniversary because they were having two weeks of celebrations there and I was invited, and I just had to go.
“So, I went out there and played the solo show for Terry and Joe Harvey’s anniversary and the next day we were on stage at the Fourth at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic at one o’clock in that fucking afternoon. That’s like, that’s like an eight-hour drive from Dallas and back to Austin. So, it’s just for one thing: Terry and Joe Harvey married 60 years. I’ve been married seven times and it doesn’t add to half of that. So, you know, I find 60 years really fucking impressive!”
I suggest that Earle would do a fantastic tribute album to Terry Allen who for many years has been based near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has established a formidable reputation as a multimedia artist as well as a songwriter.
“It’s funny,” replies Earle. “Bobby Bear and I talked about that on the Cruise of several years ago. He said we should do a should do a Terry Allen tribute record. I don’t know. That’s definitely a possibility. The other one that I haven’t done.
“I’m still writing songs. People think I’ve quit writing songs. I’m writing songs. They’re all going towards Tender Mercies. It’s gonna be really good. It’s sort of perfect for me.”
Steve Earle will be appearing at Bluesfest in Byron Bay on Thursday April 6 and Friday April, BluesfestMelbourne on Sunday April 9 and at the Enmore Theatre on April 3.
A shorter version of this feature appeared in the March/April 2023 edition of Rhythms.