Steve Earle on his new album and why he’s not moving back to Texas anytime soon.
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JAKE SILVERSTEIN: Your new album is called The Low Highway. Where does that phrase come from?
STEVE EARLE: It comes from what I saw out the window when I was traveling. I was writing songs for Treme [the HBO series, in which Earle appeared], which is about post-Katrina New Orleans, and the story of post-Katrina New Orleans is the story of this economy to a large extent. So I had the New Orleans songs, and I was also writing about what I saw out the window of the bus, and it suddenly dawned on me: I was seeing what Woody Guthrie saw. I’m a post–Bob Dylan singer-songwriter. The job was more or less invented by Bob patterning himself after Woody. This music was born in the thirties, but none of us, including Bob, were old enough to have seen the thirties firsthand. And now we’re seeing it. These times are that hard.
JS: I’d like to go back to your early years. You grew up in San Antonio in the sixties. How did that place and time shape your view of the world?
SE: Well, it’s a military town, and I grew up during the Vietnam War. So that meant when I was fifteen years old, my dad had to suffer through me ending up on the six o’clock news on a flatbed trailer in front of the Alamo singing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at a Vietnam Veterans Against the War rally. He was an air traffic controller, so he heard about it at work. And I heard about it at home. San Antonio is ultra-ultra-ultra-conservative artistically. To this day, it’s a place where it’s hard to play original music. Heavy metal’s really big, just because it pisses your parents off the worst. I knew that I was going to have to go someplace else almost immediately. So I moved to Houston. Houston had been, up to that point, where the most big-time music was happening. ZZ Top, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Townes [Van Zandt]. That’s why I went there, I was following Townes. Then I went to Nashville when
I was nineteen.
JS: You live in Greenwich Village now, and yet your songs are often set in small towns in Texas or in the South. Do you sometimes feel like you’re translating one reality for an audience that lives in another?
SE: Well, let’s put it this way. I always assumed that I would come back to Texas to live someday. But I grew up in the Texas of Lyndon Johnson. I would never have imagined that Texas would become famous for conservatism and the death penalty. It wasn’t headed for that. I would have thought Texas would end up more like Southern California. All of sudden, boom—it was something else, and I knew I would never live there again.
SE: I’ll always be a Texan, and I’ll always be proud of being a Texan, but I’ll probably never live there again. The last years of my dad’s life he couldn’t get around very well. It makes you question, If my wings got clipped, do I want to be in Texas? The answer was no. I decided that being one of those old commies in a power wheelchair on Bleecker Street was a better deal.
JS: The folk music tradition you’re a part of has always been associated with left-wing politics, but you’re also coming out of a country music tradition that’s more conservative.
SE: Yeah, but the country music tradition I come from is Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. I remember standing in a cow pasture listening to Willie Nelson with guys that used to kick my ass. That’s the condition I left Texas in. I left it in the hands of Willie Nelson, and I thought it was going to be okay.
JS: Let’s talk about “Burnin’ It Down,” from the new album. It’s a song about a guy sitting in his truck in the parking lot of a Walmart thinking about burning the store down.
SE: I haven’t bought anything from Walmart in eleven years, and the reason is, I think they’re f—ing evil on every level. There’s nothing about the way they do business that has any respect for human beings whatsoever.
JS: What was the last thing you bought there?
SE: A Christmas tree. My ex-girlfriend ran off with the kids’ soccer coach, and she took the Christmas tree for some reason. So I went to go get a tree a couple days before Christmas, and I bought it at Walmart. One of those artificial ones.
JS: Do you still have it?
SE: No. I got married again, and anything that was there before had to go when the red-headed girl from Alabama moved in. There’s another tree there now that costs a lot more money.
JS: Your voice is one of the most distinctive in American music. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s kind of soulful and ragged and nasal and full of drawl, with hints of exhaustion and defiance and pride.
SE: It’s mostly emphysema. I quit smoking seven years ago, but there was some damage. You know, I have a hard time listening to my voice on Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. It’s just not there yet. The Hard Way is a little better, but when I really start liking my voice is Train a Comin’. Some of it was from resting my vocal cords, because I spent four and a half years on the street and locked up [for possession of heroin]. But something happened when I recorded “Goodbye” for Train a Comin’.
JS: Was there more experience in your voice at that point?
SE: Maybe, maybe. Also, just not shooting dope helps, because heroin is hard on your vocal cords. It makes them relax. When people are high, their voices will actually lower in pitch. You go out and try to sing like that, and you have to strain to hit high notes, and it causes your vocal cords to thicken. There’s a lot of old junkies who can’t sing anymore because of that.
JS: Let’s talk about your acting. What’s it been like to work with David Simon on The Wire and Treme?
SE: David invented the whole idea of me as an actor, but what I figured out was that I was going to learn a lot about writing if I went out there and said words that were written by David and by Tim Blake Nelson [the writer and director of the 2010 film Leaves of Grass, which Earle appeared in]. That’s the main reason I do it. But that being said, I’m a way better live performer now than I was before I started acting.
JS: You’ve said that the character you played on Treme, a street musician in New Orleans, is basically you if you hadn’t gotten lucky enough to get a record deal.
SE: To me, that’s who that character was. David disagrees with me about that, and he wrote the character, but that’s the way the character feels to me.
JS: That character was killed in season two. What was it like to watch yourself die?
SE: I’m a Mark Twain freak, so for me it was sort of like Huck witnessing his own funeral.
JS: That reminds me of one of the songs on the new album, “Remember Me,” about being an older father and contemplating the fact that you might not be around to enjoy much of your young son’s adult life.
SE: I’m 58. My son turns three on April 5. There’s no guarantee that I’m going to see him grow up. If something happens to me today, he won’t even remember me. So that’s what the deal was. I wrote that song because I needed to.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR CLARITY AND LENGTH.