Monday, October 12, 2009
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Steve Earle pays tribute to his mentor, Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt on the new album "Townes." Earle performs songs from the album tonight at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are several ways the name Steve Earle may be familiar to you. He is, after all, a Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter who's been recording folk, rock and country music for more than 20 years. But, you may also be familiar with Steve Earle, the actor, who had a recurring part in the critically acclaimed HBO series, "The Wire." Or, the name may be familiar to you as someone who is a well-known political activist. Steve Earle has used his music and performing to speak out against the war in Iraq, against the death penalty, and for a number of progressive political causes. Steve Earle has also been the subject of a documentary, and he is a satellite radio show host. Tonight he's performing in San Diego at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, part of a tour promoting his new album, "Townes.” Now before our conversation, let’s start with a cut from the album. This is a Townes Van Zandt tune called “Pancho and Lefty.”
(audio of clip from “Pancho and Lefty” by Steve Earle)
CAVANAUGH: That was a short cut from “Pancho and Lefty” from Steve Earle’s new album “Townes.” Steve, welcome to These Days.
STEVE EARLE (Performer): It’s good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now your album is a tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Can you tell us something about him?
EARLE: Well, he was a great singer and songwriter and, you know, he was a folksinger. He was, you know part of – He made his first record in 1968. He was from Texas, from Fort Worth. And he, you know, he was part of the first wave of singer-songwriters, you know, you know, post-Bob Dylan and, you know, one of the people that started writing songs because of Bob Dylan. And he – he’s, you know, probably, I’ve never met a songwriter that didn’t know who he was. I’ve always known who he was because I came from Texas and if you played coffeehouses in Texas you immediately heard about Townes. And I had records of his that he had made before I met him so when I – before I met him, I assumed he must be rich and then I met him and found out that wasn’t true and that it was possible for people to make records and not get rich. And that was, you know, he – he had a – he was the best songwriter I probably ever saw but he also was an alcoholic and he had some other issues going on. And, you know, it’s not that he was so much a misunderstood genius as is he managed to shoot himself in the foot pretty much every chance he got. So it’s his fault that more people don’t know who he is. But he did write “Pancho and Lefty,” which that’s the song that most people know him by.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, speaking of Bob Dylan, you just once said, Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. Do you stand by that statement?
EARLE: Well, yeah, in the sense that – I mean, it was – In the first place, it was for a sticker for a Townes record. I was asked for…
EARLE: …a blurb and so put it in that context. And do I believe that Townes is a better songwriter than Bob Dylan? No. Do I believe he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath? Absolutely, and so does Bob Dylan, trust me. And, you know, Bob doesn’t have any trouble promoting himself, and never has.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, what – For people who are unfamiliar with him, what did Townes Van Zandt write about in his songs?
EARLE: Himself. And through that, us. I mean, which is, I think, you know, as pure as it gets. I mean, people – There’s a lot of discussion among, you know, song nerds about “Pancho and Lefty,” who it’s about. And people used to ask him. He – If you ask him, he’d come up with, you know, really stupid answers like I remember I heard him tell an audience it was about Billy Graham and the Guru Maharaji. But it was just he – he – I think he is Pancho and Lefty and, you know, I think that’s the answer. And him more than any other writer I’ve ever met, he was writing about himself and – but he did find, you know, those areas where his own experience was, you know, they were pieces of his own experience that all of us could relate to and that’s what makes art successful.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Steve Earle and he is on tour promoting his album “Townes.” Let’s hear a little from Townes Van Zandt. This is from “Waiting Around to Die.”
(audio of clip from “Waiting Around to Die”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Townes Van Zandt from his song “Waiting Around to Die.” And, Steve Earle, you told us already that you were a friend of Townes Van Zandt. I wonder what he meant to you personally?
EARLE: Well, I mean, he was my teacher and I had a – I was lucky, I had the benefit of a real, live, old-fashioned apprenticeship to him and another song writer called Guy Clark, who’s still with us. And I, you know, what I learned from Guy was much more pragmatic and much more hands-on about the mechanics of songwriting and we – Guy and I sort of naturally wrote the same way, tended toward story songs. And with Townes it was more like he’d give me a copy of “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” and tell me to read it…
EARLE: …and then while he was at it, hand me a copy of “War and Peace.” ‘Course I found out later he hadn’t actually read “War and Peace.” He just thought I should read it but – but, you know, he was – I named my oldest son after him. And I distanced myself from him at times and that embarrasses me but there were times that I knew that some of the stuff that was going around him wasn’t all right and, you know, I – I was ambitious and so I would distance myself from some of the stuff that was going on. Of course, it eventually caught up with me anyway and, you know, before it was over, I was in trouble and Townes, you know, showed up at my house, you know, drunk to give me a temperance lecture because I was actually in worse shape than he was. So…
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
EARLE: …you know, all that stuff kind of, you know, it – There’s a lot of survivor guilt in this record. There’s a lot of, you know, me trying to rediscover, you know, who I am. And I found out I’m a lot more Townes Van Zandt than even I thought I was.
CAVANAUGH: Now, when – There’s a good story about when he actually saw you play when you were very young. He heckled you?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
EARLE: He kept yelling at me to play “The Wabash Cannonball.” And he didn’t actually heckle me while I was singing. He was very polite while I was actually singing and playing and then in between, you know, songs he’d go, play “The Wabash Cannonball.” And he’d had a little to drink, and it was a tiny place. There was six people there. He kind of was the front row. And then I had to admit that I didn’t know “The Wabash Cannonball.” And he said, you call yourself a folksinger and you don’t know “The Wabash Cannonball?” So I played a song of his with a lot of words called “Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold,” (sic) and then he shut up.
CAVANAUGH: We have that song and you’ve included it on your tribute album, so let’s listen to a little of it.
(audio of Steve Earle performing “Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s “Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold,” (sic) by Townes Van Zandt off the album “Townes” by Steve Earle. And, Steve, I’m wondering, you know, can you tell us about this song or is this another one where it’s just – Townes would say it was about everything.
EARLE: It’s one hand of – The first part of it sort of sets up the cards as characters. And the second part of it, or the second two-thirds of it is one hand of five card stud poker. And, you know, I think it’s – it takes a lot of the fun out of listening to it to tell anybody what the hand is. If you can, you know, if you can figure out what the hand is then you know something about cards.
CAVANAUGH: Why was it that Van Zandt never achieved recording industry success? Was it because of his addictions?
EARLE: It was because – No, I mean, he had that going on and it didn’t help, but there’s lots of junkies and alcoholics, you know, that become successful in the music business and the movies, you know, including myself. And, you know, I wasn’t a practicing addict and, you know, through – up until I just couldn’t function anymore, and I made a lot of money and sold records, you know. But he – Anytime he saw anything that looked like success coming from a great distance, he would ambush it at the first opportunity. And I don’t know why that is. I – Sometimes I think he just – He grew up with a lot of money and he always had trouble reconciling how much he had with how little some people had through no accomplishment of his own and no fault of theirs. The gap between, you know, the way he grew up and the way a lot of people grow up and the way a lot of people live. And he, you know, he was notorious for bringing homeless people home with him which just, you know, pretty much caused the demise of his first marriage. And he – he just – I think it was – I think he felt he didn’t deserve to be, you know, much in the way of material things and he was uncomfortable with them. I – I do know that what I saw when I met him was it became very apparent to me that he had decided that he was going to write songs at this incredibly high level and he didn’t really care, and that’s not an exaggeration. He did not care whether he made money or not. I don’t – I think – I don’t think he thought it made him better or purer to fail, you know, commercially but I think he was uncomfortable with that and he was going to write songs anyway so it just didn’t matter to him.
CAVANAUGH: Now as close as you two were, can you remember a time when maybe he gave you a piece of advice or perhaps did something that you knew that you were going to remember forever?
EARLE: Well, there’s lots of stuff. I mean, you know, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was a big one. You know, that made a huge impression on me and I had never read it. You know, he basically – He told me one time that – I mean, it wasn’t – I did – I couldn’t take all of his advice at face value. He told me – I was – I had a publishing deal for several years and Townes had, you know, was sort of itinerant, you know, didn’t live anywhere when I met him. And then he finally settled in Nashville a few years after I did and I – my publishing deal that I’d been living on for three years had come to an end and I, you know, I was – I didn’t want to have to get a job so I was getting ready to go into town and look for a publishing deal. We were sort of – I was sort of camped in a van on the property of a cabin was that he lived – and he said – he said, well, you don’t need to do that. You don’t need a publishing deal. You know, you’re like, you know, you’re Woody Guthrie, you’re not Bob McDill. Bob McDill’s a really successful country songwriter…
EARLE: …a really great songwriter but, you know, more of a guy that gets up in the morning and goes to the office and writes songs. And I said, you know, like thanks a lot, don’t, you know, you know, that’s not – I don’t need that kind of pressure and that’s not what this is about. I was a lot more pragmatic about trying to find ways to subsidize art than Townes was.
EARLE: I was okay with it and, you know, I mean, I didn’t take his advice verbatim but, you know, I did take the part of it about, you know, it was a reminder that when I’m doing a hit, I’m making art. And I think I’ve, you know, I think I’ve managed to – everything I know about making art and, you know, you do have to dedicate yourself to doing it, no matter what. And I’m really fortunate that I made some money but I would’ve kept doing it anyway, and I learned that from Townes.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear another cut from the album “Townes.” Steve Earle. This is “To Live Is To Fly.”
(audio of Steve Earle performing “To Live Is To Fly”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Steve Earle with another Townes Van Zandt tune, “To Live Is To Fly.” You know, Steve, when I was introducing you, I talked about all the different things you’ve done, actor, political activist, you’re a radio show host on Sirius Satellite radio, I read you’re also working on a novel. Where are you with that project?
EARLE: It’s almost finished. I handed my poor editor a novel that had everything but an ending before this tour started in May. But I – my intention was to finish it before the tour started and I didn’t quite make it. But I’m almost there. I should be able finish it over Christmas. The tour’s winding down, you know, we go until – We come back from Europe on December 10th and then there’s one more run and then – in January, and the tour’s going to end in Boulder, Colorado, end on February 2nd. Over Christmas, I should finish the book and turn it in. It’ll be published sometime next year.
CAVANAUGH: What’s it about?
EARLE: It’s about a – God. Okay. It’s about a defrocked doctor living in San Antonio, Texas in 1963 and he’s a heroin addict and he supports his habit largely by performing abortions. And 10 years earlier, he was traveling with Hank Williams when he died, as it turns out, and Hank’s ghost haunts him and is a character in the book. And it’s called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
CAVANAUGH: You know, do you sometimes surprise yourself with all the stuff that you do?
EARLE: Yeah, I mean, it’s like – and, you know, and I drive myself and my wife crazy and, I mean, I think I – I’ve got an 8th grade education so, you know, literally, so I don’t – I mean, I went to the 9th grade twice but I didn’t finish it either time, is what I mean by that. But I kind of – You know, I take on a lot of stuff, and there’s times when I’m in the middle of it that I regret it. A novel is like such a bear that I couldn’t even imagine. It’s not like it’s going to be this big huge book. I’ve been working on it for like seven or eight years. But it’s like – it’s just, you know, it’s not my day job, so it’s taken longer to complete it. And, you know, I wrote a play during that time and, you know, put it up twice, two different productions of it, one in Nashville and one in New York. And, you know, I’ve written a lot of poems and a lot of articles. I write some, you know, some nonfiction stuff, too. And, you know, and I’ve made several records and…
EARLE: …in there somewhere. So it’s one of those things. I think making any kind of art always strengthens your home base craft and I don’t, you know, I really believe in it. I really believe that – I mean, I even paint a little bit. I’m really terrible at it but I like to do it and I – a lot of this is stuff I started doing after I was 40, too. I even tried to learn to surf when I’ve been to celebrate my 50th birthday and I failed at that but I did try. And, you know, I moved to New York City when I was 50. So…
CAVANAUGH: Steve, we’re going to have to leave it there but if you want to surf, stay down here.
EARLE: Well, one of those – Australia was pretty good though. I’ve been pretty much every where in the world.
CAVANAUGH: Steve Earle, thank you so much.
EARLE: All right. Thanks.
CAVANAUGH: Steve Earle is performing in San Diego tonight at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach at 8:00 p.m. And you have been listening to These Days on KPBS-FM.
(audio of clip from Steve Earle’s latest album “Townes)