Music — August 6, 2019 15:54 — 0 Comments

Steve Earle Talks Death, The Wire, Guitars And Leaving Home

American singer-songwriter, Steve Earle, is a living legend. Between his decades touring the country, playing his jangly-heavy guitar for audiences thirsty for stories of the road and dust kicked up, and his years acting on hit television shows like HBO’s The Wire and Treme, Earle is known for his folk wisdom and sharp tongue. He’s a veteran of the Texas, New Orleans and Nashville music circuits and he’s a staple for those combing through the decades of Americana music greatness. I caught up with Earle to ask him about the first time he picked up a guitar, what it was like leaving his parents at an early age to pursue songwriting and what he’d like to experience just before he died.

Do you remember the first time you picked up a guitar and it felt special?

Special? Wow. I remember vaguely when I first picked a guitar up. I know what guitar it was, it belonged to my uncle. I was fascinated with guitars for a long time, so probably the very first time I picked one up would be 1966 or 1967 in Schertz, Texas.

What initially appealed to you about the craft of songwriting?

I was fascinated when I was really little with Elvis and then the Beatles. They came along at the right time when I was, like, nine-years-old. I was getting older and more musical, though I probably didn’t realize that at the time. The idea to write songs never occurred to me until I started holding records and looking at them and realizing what that line underneath the title was, where it said, “Lennon-McCartney.” I knew who those guys were. So, I think that’s when I realized, “Oh they write their own songs!” That made me start to want to do it.

You left home at an early age. Do you remember what was going through your mind at that time?

My dad was being sent temporarily to Oklahoma City from San Antonio to be retrained as a data systems officer for the FAA. He had been an air traffic controller and they’d started computerizing things and he became a data systems officer because he had some math skills. I didn’t want to leave my girlfriend or the gigs that I had and I’d dropped out of school that year, so I was already out of school. I’d run away from home a couple times before just for the adventure. My parents didn’t do anything wrong and I loved my parents; I just wanted to go out and see the world, literally. So, when my folks went to Oklahoma, I didn’t want to go. My dad knew that he couldn’t keep me there, so he helped me find an apartment and I moved into my own apartment when I was 16.

There’s a strong sense of tradition in your work. What do you enjoy about keeping this in the forefront of your songs?

Allen Ginsberg said, “It’s meaningless to break meter until you learn how to write meter in the first place.” Knowing where things come from and learning – they call the things artists do “disciplines” for a reason. Nobody tells you when to punch your clock but my experience is if you don’t discipline yourself to some degree, you’re not going to make art for very long.

There’s something classically American about your music. What does it feel like to be an American artist today?

You know, sometimes it’s embarrassing when you travel overseas. To some degree, it existed for a while but it’s become acute. But I think being an American artist, especially in the form that I work in, is something that’s also admired around the world. So, that makes up for it. Every once in a while I’ll run into somebody that’s just hostile because of it and I get it.

You were part of one of the greatest stories ever told with The Wire. How do you think your musical career helped to prepare you for the show?

Wow. I’d never done any acting. I did know a little bit about – basically, I was playing a redneck recovering addict, so no acting was required. I knew all of that stuff. But I’m a pretty good performer, I know how to connect with audiences and eventually I think by the time I got to the end of The Wire and I got to do Treme [David Simon’s post-hurricane Katrina television show] and a couple features that I made, I decided I would take acting jobs if I got them and I liked the script. I learned that it’s not only just what I’d done before, connecting with audiences helps me there, but what I’ve done in acting roles has made me a stronger performer on stage when I go out to do my day job, too.

Your relationship with the character, Bubbles, on the show was especially significant. How did you develop chemistry with the actor, Andre Royo?

Oh, I love Dre and I learned most of what I know about acting from him. He’s a badass and he wasn’t going to put up with me keeping him on the set longer than he needed to be. So, if I was standing there talking to somebody, he’d say, “Hey man, c’mon! Let’s do a speed-through.” He’d get me off and we’d start running lines. He showed me how he did it and he’s really, really good. I learned a lot in a very short period of time.

It’s so beautiful to watch you guys on screen together.

Well, I’m recognized for it all over the world. It’s a big deal for me.

Much of your storyline on the series had to do with drugs and sobriety. What did it feel like to mine your own history with these?

It was sort of effortless. I didn’t even have to think about it. And I could tell them if something wasn’t right – and they wanted me to. I ran into one director – I’m not going to name any names – who didn’t understand the scene that we were plying because he had never been a recovering addict and I had to say, “Hey, that wouldn’t work like that.” He still didn’t believe me, but we eventually did what I suggested and it worked and it still works.

Is there something you’ve seen along recent U.S. tours that gives you hope for the future or just simply heartens you?

I’m an optimist. When you get down to it, there’s way more to be pessimistic about than optimistic about, I’m afraid, if you just take it in those terms. But I’m a glass half-full kind of guy.

Last question: if you could listen to one song before you died, which would you choose?

Oh god! Before I die? I probably wouldn’t be thinking about my art form. I would probably want to see Much Ado About Nothing or Hamlet. One or the other before I die, depending on whether I was in a comedic or tragic mood. I hope that I get to a point where I’m more in the mood for a comedy right before I die.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney