Steve Earle is not a fluffball of peace, light and unicorns, though he wears his heart on his sleeve – and his jacket and his jeans. It can get messy. And at 68 his work isn’t getting any fluffier. Husband to six wives (one twice-married) and with three sons (his firstborn, Justin Towns Earle, died tragically in 2020), telling it like it is, both personally and professionally makes his work some of the most important in modern music history – Seven recently spoke to Steve at home in New York about life and his preparations for Bluesfest.
Your son John Henry is almost a teenager – how is fatherhood treating you these days?
Well, I’m a single dad nine months of the year. I tour in the summers for the most part, except for odd trips, like Australia – it actually coincides with his spring break. He’s been in this school since he was three – there’s nothing for kids with autism in Tennessee.
Last time we spoke you said you were supporting Bernie Sanders for that election cycle. How is the current political situation going?
I’m a pretty hardcore lefty. But in fact, I joined the Democratic Party for the very first time so I could support Sanders in that last election cycle. I knew it was gonna be better for everybody if he had a shot. He had enough support. I don’t know whether he could have won or not. I had a feeling that he wouldn’t get the nomination, but he came very close and it did make a difference. In this cycle, I supported Joe Biden from day one and I pissed a lot of my very, very left-leaning friends off. It’s not that my politics changed. I just thought we had to get Trump out of there.
You told me once before your best songwriting tip was to keep your ears open and not wear headphones on the subway. Does that still apply?
I haven’t been on the subway for a long time just because it got spooky. It was just because so many people that were on the street moved into the subways and they were kind of preying on each other. Me alone was one thing, but riding with John Henry was spooking me. It got dangerous, it’s still more dangerous than it was – but now it’s improving slowly but surely.
The big question I have is, in what ways has the loss of Justin changed your world view?
I set my memoir aside because it was largely a book about recovery. I’ve been working on it for years and Justin dying of an overdose of fentanyl changed that book. It’s a big hole I get to walk around in for the rest of my life. It’s not gonna get better. It’s not supposed to. You have to just accept that. You know, people will say the one thing that you should never have to do is bury your child, but that’s kind of bullshit. Somebody’s doing it every day. I’ve tried to keep that in mind as well. It’s just sort of disrespectful to think it’s something that’s only happened to you.
Has your creative process bent to the will of your grief?
I wrote one song, which is on the last record, right after he passed away. I’m a different person than I was before I lost my firstborn son. Just like I’m a different person than I was before I got sober, and a different person than before I moved to New York when I was 50 years old. All those things are kind of landmarks and they do change you. I write – that’s what I do. You know, that’s the only way I can kind of justify the space I take up.
What are you looking forward to seeing this year in Byron?
It’s my favourite festival in the world – in a tie with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (a festival held in the fall in San Francisco). But Byron is a great place to be for that three or four days. I’ve done some of the best shows I’ve ever done there. I’ve done it solo, and with bands, and there are always great audiences, they’re there for music. Byron’s my kind of town – every dog has a bandana.
Find out more about Steve Earle and other great sets coming your way at: www.bluesfest.com.au