Steve Earle’s first professional album credit was for playing bass and singing back-up vocals on “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train,” a track from Guy Clark’s now-legendary debut 1975 album Old No. 1. Less than a year before its recording, Earle had hitchhiked from San Antonio to Nashville and found himself taking over for Rodney Crowell as the bassist in Clark’s band. Forty years later, at a wake for Clark, the grizzled godfather of Nashville songwriters who passed away in 2016 after a lengthy battle with lymphoma, Earle marveled at outtakes from the photos that Nashville photographer Jim McGuire shot for the packaging and publicity of Old No. 1.
“I was shocked at him seeing him the way he looked when I met him, because to me he always seemed venerable,” says Earle, whose latest record is GUY, a sixteen-song tribute to Clark. The album comes ten years after Earle’s Grammy Award winning album Townes, a tribute to his other songwriting mentor, Townes Van Zandt. “How could somebody seem so venerable even when he was 33 or 34 years old? I can’t imagine Guy ever being 30-anything.”
Earle is now 64 years old, and GUY is his nineteenth studio album. There’s no evidence of him slowing down: last year, he celebrated the 30th anniversary of his best-selling album, 1988’s Copperhead Road, with an expansive tour; earlier this year, he appeared in the off-Broadway play Samara, which he also scored. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of GUY, given Earle’s reputation as an unapologetic polemicist and old-school Texas rabble rouser, is that in these divided times he didn’t make a political record. Even so, Earle is adamant that he won’t be silenced online, onstage, or on record and that anybody trying to tell him to “shut and sing” is barking up the wrong tree.
“I grew up in an era where it never occurred to me the separate politics and music,” says Earle, who was fifteen years old when he sang Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” on a flatbed truck in front of the Alamo at a rally of Vietnam veterans against the war. “I have a right to talk about and sing about what I want to. People have a right to tell me to shut up, but don’t expect me to pay any attention to it whatsoever.”
On The National Podcast of Texas, Earle outlines the approach he took towards GUY, details his original move from Texas to Nashville, and lays out how Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson changed the course of his career.
Highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On Guy Clark’s mentorship
He could be a tough judge, although he never ever said anything bad about one of my songs. He could be sort of brutal. I saw somebody play a song for him and he listened to the whole song and he said, “Needs work.” We knew the bar was high, but he also was really generous, and he showed me how he went about it. He taught me to organize things on a page so I knew what the next logical step was to try to figure it out. He showed me how to look at it like a diagram and figure out what I need. He wrote that way. Even though there was pure emotion and lightning in a bottle involved, he knew how to let way less of the lightning get away than a lot of the other less disciplined writers I know.
On Townes and Guy
The difference between Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark is like the difference between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac is the guy that everybody’s romantically attached to and they go on and on and on, but he struggled for a long, long time and died young and wrote nothing the last decade and a half of his life. Townes wrote three songs, really good songs, but only three songs in the last fifteen years of his life, and he died when he was 51 years old. Guy lived to be 74—he lived a long time considering how sick he was [with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma]. That was mainly because he was tough, probably too tough for his own good sometimes. He worked until the very end. That’s like Allen Ginsberg, who left a body of work because he did what he had to do. These things that artists do are called disciplines for a reason.
I believe in God. I don’t know anybody who took real LSD at 25 that doesn’t believe in God. But I don’t have any need to understand the nature of God at this point in my life. I’m choosing to believe that there is a god, but I’m not willing to argue about whether there’s one or not. I’m okay with you believing there’s not, but I choose to believe that there is. The core of my spiritual system is that I’m in a twelve-step program, so it’s just necessary for me to believe there’s a power greater than myself or I’m dead. That’s really where it all comes from for me. In the poetic sense, I’ve always dealt in Abrahamic religious terms because whether they like it or not, I’m essentially a country singer, and my audience understands that better than they do the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
On the way it used to be
My generation of songwriters was lucky. I didn’t know what to tell Justin [Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle] when he started doing this. We had big corporations that were making records, and they would sign me or Tom Waits so they could look cool, even though they knew they weren’t going to sell millions of records with us. There was enough money being made from the big guys. I have Michael Jackson to thank for my career as much as anybody else. I started out on Epic Records and was signed with money that Michael Jackson generated. I’m okay with that. Art has to be subsidized from somewhere.
On the state of the Union
What’s happening here is fascism. It’s the richest, most privileged people not wanting to pay taxes, wanting to be able to give their money to their kids. The truth is this is not a country that was established by a revolution of the people. It was established by a revolution of rich farmers that didn’t want to pay their taxes, and it was established so that those rich farmers could practice slavery for another fifty years because it’d already been outlawed in Europe. That’s who we are. I don’t quote Condoleezza Rice very often, but she said that we as a nation suffer from a birth defect, and that’s slavery. It’s in our DNA. It’s part of who we are.
Fascism, by definition, is when the military and the landed gentry form an alliance that leaves everybody out but them. They do it by nationalism. That’s to scare everybody else and make them so afraid of each other that they’re not opposing them. But it’s mainly just the absence of democracy. It’s what happens in the vacuum that’s left when democracy dies. Democracy has to be real, functioning, and transparent. It has to be seen as fair to people. Right now, the game has looked so rigged for so long that people started losing interest, and that leaves the vacuum.