Steve Earle has had a big life and has often found his way onto the highways and byways of controversy, sometimes on his own path and sometimes where he crossed the path of others…
Intrepid reporter Eve Jeffery spoke with Earle in the leadup to his performance at Bluesfest this Easter.
Where are you and what time is it?
It’s 11.15pm in New York City. I was scheduled late because I had to get my little boy [John Henry] to bed first; he’ll be up again at six.
I’ve got interviews until 1am then I’ll try to catch a few hours until he wakes up.
He has autism; he’s been at school since two years of age – that’s how you treat it. He will be six in April; I’ll just barely make it back for his birthday because Byron’s late this year and the tour ends in Byron.
You have written a lot about different places in your songs. Is where are you living now affecting what you’re writing?
Living in New York affects writing in a lot of ways.
I made a whole record when I first moved here 11 years ago that was very much about NY, called Washington Square Serenade, and I still live in that neighbourhood, Greenwich Village. I love living here.
As you get older you need the juice, so I need the input. I don’t ride around on the subway with headphones on, ’cause you’re missing the songs if you do that.
Living in the city like this – there’s a reason artists gravitate towards places like this.
Are you still a revolutionary? Do you see any hope for the political process in the US or elsewhere?
I’m a socialist.
I’m supporting Bernie Sanders in this election cycle.
My politics have been pretty consistent most of my life. I’m kind of a hippy; that’s how I came up. I’ve always said Australians are more like Americans than anyone else I’ve met when it comes to a lot of things, but you have to go to some pretty scary places to find anything to the right of where our extreme right is in this country!
It’s kind of crazy.
Any thoughts about Donald Trump?
He’s dangerous and people assumed he would stop, and couldn’t get elected, but he wouldn’t be the first idiot we ever elected president of the United States.
I don’t think he’s as smart as people make him out to be, and he’s certainly not as smart as he makes himself out to be.
My understanding from people around NY is that he’s taken a family fortune he inherited, and that original fortune is half of what it was. He’s a good plate-spinner. None of these hotels with his name on belong to him any more. He gets into them, puts his name on them and he gets out of them.
His reality television salary is where most of his money comes from; he’s making a lot doing that, and he’s going to be making even more after this cycle’s over, however the election turns out.
You’ve written about Woody Guthrie and worked with Joan Baez – your songs were sung at the Bentley Blockade, you’ve campaigned against the death penalty – how do you see the role of music in activism these days?
The Revolution Starts Now is played at nearly every Bernie Sanders rally. I’m very proud of that. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me. I’ve written three songs about the death penalty and that was my major area of activism for a long time; I’m still active to some degree in that movement.
I’ve concentrated more on the wars that we’ve been involved in, and I have a personal dog in a fight, in that I’ve got a son with autism, so I do a lot of work around that issue, around funding for kids, ’cause it’s one in 90 kids that are being born today.
Treating them is expensive. It takes really intensive therapy that needs to begin immediately. Some of them are brilliant kids. What we’re in danger of is the cure for cancer or the answer to climate change or the answer to peace in the Middle East in Jerusalem is being locked up inside one of these kids.
It doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, it’s about us missing the future, so it’s a pretty important issue and I work on that.
But I think songs are a big part of that. You can use them to raise money, you can use them to raise awareness, and I’ve done both.
I’ve had three or four people come up to me over the years and say, ‘Hey, I heard one of your songs and it changed my mind about the death penalty,’ and that’s a big deal when somebody tells you something like that, because it’s a very divisive issue that people feel very strongly about.
So that makes my job seem worth it.
We loved seeing your role in Treme. Any more acting planned?
Yes there are a couple of things out there that I’ve made since Treme.
There’s a film called The World Made Straight, where I’m a really, really bad guy, kind of the opposite of my characters in Treme and The Wire. I actually finished two movies. There’s one called Leaves of Grass made 5–6 years ago where I played a drug dealer but it’s a comedy, and he’s kind of stupid and funny. Then I played another hillbilly drug dealer in The World Made Straight – he’s not so funny! Kind of scary.
Then there’s a new film called Dixieland that just came out and went straight to the pay-per-view system in the United States, but it’s a first-time director… with Riley Keeler who’s Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, but it’s pretty good, I’m really proud of it.
I’ve been doing the odd feature. I hope I get another TV gig like that. It’s hard for me to do sometimes because of touring. I still make more money in my day job than I do in film and television.
What is it you like about Bluesfest that brings you back for more?
It’s in Byron, which is my favourite beach in the world. Every dog has a bandanna round its neck and a frisbee in its mouth.
It’s my kind of place!
It’s all music that I love, and the way Byron’s set up… When it was at the football club it was great and out at the plantation it’s even better, less mud and a little more controlled. You can get from one stage to another. I’ve had some of my best experiences at Byron.
At the Byron before last, I rode back into town with John Paul Jones and Donovan in the same van, and got them talking about those records, because JP was on all of those records, so that was a trip! I wouldn’t let that opportunity get away. It was incredible.
How does the band within the band work with husband-and-wife duo the Mastersons playing fiddle and guitar in your band?
They go off! They end up working themselves to death when we come over, because they peel off sometimes and go play their own shows. I worry about them a little bit, but they’re young, they can do it. They’re really really talented and they make really good records.
Part of the reason the blues record Terraplane got made is that Chris Masterson cut his teeth on this stuff in Houston. He’s really good at it, and people are going to have a whole different impression of Chris Masterson after they see this tour, and Eleanor for that matter. She’s really really good on this tour.
It was surprising to see you were up for a Golden Guitar for your song with Catherine Britt at the Tamworth Country Musical Festival this year – and you’ve done a lot of duets with different wonderful women over the years. Any more duets planned?
Shawn Colvin and I just made a record together. It’s not so much duets, but with the band. Buddy Miller produced it. It’s called Colvin and Earle. It’ll be out 10 June, and the next Byron you see us it’ll probably be Shawn and me.
We’re really really proud of it.
Who are you looking forward to seeing play at Easter?
Jackson Browne is coming! The last time Jackson was there I was there too. We had a pretty cool set; I sat in with him on his show.
Jackson came and did my benefit, which was the first annual benefit for John Henry’s school, called John Henry’s Friends, that we do here in New York City. He came in, along with Justin my son, and the Mastersons. So we’re looking forward to that.
Eleven years ago on stage at Bluesfest you said you were going to learn to surf in Byron for your 50th – did that happen?
It didn’t! I tried and tried and tried but it just kicked my arse! You can ask around; I tried. There were several instructors scratching their heads, but it’s really really physical and I just couldn’t quite do it. I got up a couple of times, but I didn’t really learn to surf. But I tried! I gave it a shot. I came back to Byron at the end of the tour and kept trying, but no luck.
Now I’m 61 so I guess it’s not going to happen!
Will you be bringing a mandolin to Bluesfest?
I always bring a mandolin, it’s about a third of the set now. I wrote on mandolin with Copperhead Road, but my mandolin comes home to Australia when I bring it home, because it was built in Victoria by Steven Gilchrist.
We see your son Justin touring out here regularly and he was at Bluesfest last year. Do you have any thoughts about his career or his recent work such as Absent Fathers ?
It’s a really really good record. It’s a title people read a lot into. I was there a lot more than a lot of dads are, and his mother has never been a single mother. She’s always been with somebody, as far as I know.
Do you still feel like Townes Van Zandt is influencing your life and work?
Yeah, he’s still the centre of the group. I belong to a cult with Townes Van Zandt at its centre (laughs). I and a lot of other people. Guy (Clark), Lucinda Williams, and I – we’re all members of a cult.
You’ve taught songwriting – have you got any tips to share?
Yeah, keep your ears open and don’t wear headphones when you’re on the subway!
Byron Blues Festival – Thursday 24 March – Monday 28 March. For ticket and program info go to bluesfest.com.au.