I’m not really sure how a 17-year-old goth girl got into a hardcore country troubadour like Steve Earle, but I did. I HATED country music. Still do.
But Steve Earle was a bad boy, a biker, smoker, drug-taker, storyteller. And Copperhead Road somehow became one of my favourite albums.
On October 2nd, 1990, I went to Massey Hall in Toronto and with the sole intention of meeting and interviewing Steve Earle. I hadn’t arranged anything. I just brought my tape recorder and sat outside for a few hours. I befriended a Massey roadie called Mickey who gave me a cup of coffee. I told him what I wanted to do. He laughed but let me sit inside the door so I didn’t freeze. It was f*cking cold outside.
Eating Dinner With Steve Earle
When Steve arrived for soundcheck, he looked rough. I routinely thank my own naivety – it allowed me to boldly trundle up to totally messy musicians and just assume they’d be nice to a kid. Most of them were. So I bravely asked Steve if he’d have time to do an interview. His new album The Hard Way was just out. I had questions.
He agreed, bless him, took me downstairs and while his band and crew ate dinner, talked to me. Really talked to me. Told me about how “story songs” were his “strong suit”, what it was like writing with Maria McKee from Lone Justice, and about the amazing Hard Way track “Justice In Ontario”. He said that song, about the “Black Donnellys”, a feuding family from Southern Ontario, was inspired by a Stompin’ Tom Connors track he heard. Another Hard Way song, “Billy Austin” represented his view on capital punishment. “If you can’t see your way clear to seeing that capital punishment is just wrong,” he said in his mesmerizing, mumbling drawl, “then at least you ought to be able to see your way clear to realize that the judicial system is not perfect. It’s not God-like and therefore should not have a God-like effect.”
That interview had a lasting effect on me. I hung out with T bassist Kelly Looney (and talked about the Bulgarian Women’s Music Choir, of all things) and watched soundcheck. The article garnered some attention, too. It prompted one inmate in an Ontario prison to write me.
So nearly 20 years later, I find myself mesmerized once again by Steve Earle’s mumbling drawl. Along with oh, 2779 other people.
Townes and Country
Earle played Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad and his acoustic performance was fundamentally a 2-hour ode to his mentor, teacher and friend, folk singer Townes Van Zandt, who died on New Year’s Day in 1997 and whom Earle covered last year on the album Townes.
And Townes was ALL over the show .“Pancho & Lefty”, “Colorado Girl” “To Live is to Fly” and the eerie track “Lungs”, which Earle introduced as: “If this song don’t scare you to death, you’re probably over-medicated”, were all present and accounted for, as were countless funny and heartbreaking tales about Earle’s history with him.
“If aliens were to land in British Columbia tonight,” he explained to the wrapt crowd, “and the head alien were to come out and put a gun to my head and ask me, ‘who is Townes Van Zandt?’ I would reply: ‘Townes Van Zandt was a blues singer….sir.’ But not the kind of blues you and I might think, where the first verse states an issue or problem, the second verse reiterates that same issue or problem and the third part fails miserably to resolve that issue…and it all unfolds over a 12-bar chord progression. This is different. Townes used to say that there were two kinds of music: ‘Blues and Zippity-Do-Da.’”
Certainly, the love-in didn’t stop at the Townes limit. Earle pulled out oldies from Exit O (“I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”), Guitar Town (“My Old Friend The Blues”) and tracks like “City of Immigrants”, ”Billy and Bonnie”, “Goodbye” (“the first song I wrote sober”), “Galway Girl,” “Someday” and led the crowd through mega-singalong encores of “Down in the Hole”(the title track to enormously awesome cop show The Wire) and – thank the leather-decked biker gods – “Copperhead Road”. And throughout he regailed the audience with stories, including advice on what to do on the first day you find yourself in jail: “Pick the biggest motherf*cker and knock him out…now, I’m not saying this will always go your way. But then you might get to keep your radio and ….other things.”
“I’ve written a f*ck of a lot of songs,” he laughed at one point. “I guess that’s what happens if you don’t die.” \m/