As the legend goes, Steve Earle first met Townes Van Zandt when the late songwriter heckled a 17-year-old Earle during a performance at a Houston coffee shop in 1972. That encounter marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Earle and the man who would serve as his greatest influence.
Over nearly four decades, Earle forged his own path to music stardom. But like that of his mentor — who passed away on New Year’s Day 1997 after a lifetime of substance abuse — his road was strewn with perils.
The heralded songwriter and passionate political activist has battled numerous personal demons; he’s weathered drug addiction, alcoholism and seven marriages. But he’s also seen his share of triumphs, including two Grammy awards, numerous film and television appearances, and, finally, a stable marriage, to songwriter Allison Moorer. Now sober for more than a decade, Earle has released a brilliant tribute to his fallen and underappreciated idol. The lovingly conceived and intimately understated album is entitled simply Townes.
Seven Days recently spoke with Earle by phone in advance of his performance with Aimee Mann at Burlington’s Waterfront Park.
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve called Townes a “real bad role model,” but he obviously influenced you in ways beyond being just a, well, bad influence. STEVE EARLE: The first thing was that it became obvious to me, almost immediately, that I was witnessing someone making art at a really high level, without consideration for whether they were gonna be compensated for it materially. And that was pretty stunning when you were 17 years old.
When I first heard of him, I saw his records — people in coffee houses that I played at in San Antonio had ’em — and I was 14 … His face was on a record, so I figured he was rich. Then I met him and found out he wasn’t, but he kept doing this anyway. And he did it at this really, really high level and set the bar for all of us that were lucky enough to run into him the first few years we were writing.
SD: While there are specific groups of fans and, especially, songwriters who appreciate him, Townes Van Zandt has really never gotten wider acclaim. Why do you think that is? SE: It’s his fault. He shot himself in the foot every chance he got. I mean, Bob Dylan’s always known who Townes was. And more people know who he is now than you’d think. I used to have to tell everybody who he was every time his name came up…
But songwriters … and people in the music business have known who he was for a long time…
SD: How did he “shoot himself in the foot”? SE: He didn’t involve himself in the making of his records. It took him a long time to make a record that he was really completely and totally comfortable with. And that record [Seven Come Eleven] … wasn’t released, and it was really great. The songs ended up on another [album] later, called Flyin’ Shoes. But his skills were somewhat diminished by that time. And he had sort of given up by the time he made that record.
SD: How did you decide which songs to record for this album? SE: It was hard. I mean, I had 28 songs on the list the night before I started recording. And after that, I started recording, got to 15 I thought would make a good record, and stopped. But it was stuff that was important to me, stuff that I hadn’t already recorded. Stuff that I felt like I’d be a pussy if I didn’t record it … It was mind blowing going through it all and realizing how much great material there really was.
SD: You wanted to reproduce them as you remembered them from when Townes was playing, right? SE: Yeah, the performances themselves. But I didn’t make any rules about what I could do to them after that … I was willing to overdub almost any of them. I put strings on a few of them. But I recorded all of the sessions, just guitar and vocal versions, and then I … went to Shreveport to shoot a movie. And I was riding around playing it for the director … and he goes, “You’re not going to do anything to that, are you?” … That comment, plus Steve Christiansen, who actually recorded most of this stuff, said that he would take it home at night … He had a connection to Townes and he’s a really good engineer.
[Steve] and his girlfriend said they felt like they were eavesdropping on someone when listening to the songs. I took that to heart … So the criteria was to never put anything on the album that took it out of the little room … There’s this really intimate sound to it.
SD: It’s been about five years since you released The Revolution Starts Now, which was essentially a response to the Bush presidency. Now that we are six months into the Obama presidency, do you feel we’re finally seeing some changes for the better? SE: I feel like I’m being listened to. And … I’m much more comfortable with Pat Leahy being the head of the judiciary committee when we’re choosing a Supreme Court justice.
“The Revolution Starts Now” — what that song was about and what the idea was with that record is that the revolution goes on one way or the other. I really am a Socialist. I’m something way to the left of a Democrat. And the revolution goes on with you or without you. The whole point of that song was that the revolution starts with you, when you wake the fuck up. And I think the country did wake up.
I voted for Barack Obama for one reason: because he promised he would bring these troops home from Iraq. And he hasn’t done that yet. Now, I’m patient. But I’d hate to have to write the letters … for any of these kids that are killed between now and the time he finally gets them out of there. I believe that’s what his intention is. I believe he was handed a lot of shit to deal with. And you know what? He’s a lot more progressive than I thought he was, all things considered.
SD: You’re something of an authority on the ins and outs of marriage. You probably know that, in a few months, gay couples will be able to get married in Vermont… SE: Oh, I didn’t realize that had actually happened. That’s great!
One of the reasons I moved to New York was that … walking out my front door and being able to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands, it makes me feel better. It makes me feel like I’m OK. I’m safe. And I couldn’t say that living in Tennessee.
It became such a fear-mongering issue. The initiative against same-sex marriage in California is powered by exactly the same thing as what powered attacking Iraq. It’s completely and totally something born of fear … I live in Greenwich Village now. I feel safer there than I did in Nashville in the last 30 years, as heterosexual to a fault as I am.
SD: Do you have any words of advice for our legions of soon-to-be newlyweds? SE: It’s hard for anybody to be married. It’s hard enough for people to live together and try to occupy the same space. It’s obviously something human beings want to do, and it’s sort of how we were designed to live. But it’s tough.
I’m clueless! I got married … well, I can tell you more about divorces than I can about marriages. And that’s that they suck. So just the pain that you have to go through … Gay people can get married. But now they have to get divorces…
During my third divorce, I was high enough to hunt ducks with a rake with my lawyer. Her lawyer called. And they postured — for my benefit, I guess — and threatened each other and puffed up their chests on the phone for a minute. And then they made a date to play golf.
SD: Are you serious? SE: I’m dead serious. It’s important to remember that: Watch out for lawyers, no matter what.