Concert Preview: Grammy Winner Steve Earle Putting Up His ‘Dukes’ May 13
RIDGEFIELD — One of the greatest compliments an artist can pay to someone who greatly influenced their own creativity is to emulate that mentor.
Multiple Grammy Award winner, singer-songwriter, performer, author, actor, and playwright Steve Earle has been fortunate to have had two incredibly talented but drastically different mentors, and he has been able to produce his own projects paying tribute to each of them.
Having been deeply influenced by the songwriting of Townes van Zandt, Earle made his music the subject of the Grammy-winning 2009 album Townes. And now, a decade later, he's done the same for Guy Clark, who gave Earle his first full-time gig.
In a chat with The Newtown Bee ahead of his May 13 headline set at The Ridgefield Playhouse, Earle said his brand new album Guy features the best configuration of players from his longstanding backing ensemble The Dukes — Kelley Looney on bass, Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel guitar, and Brad Pemberton on drums and percussion — who will be backing him at the Playhouse show.
Guy also features guest appearances by fellow Guy Clark cohorts Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mickey Raphael, Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, and Gary Nicholson, and imaging from photographer Jim McGuire.
One of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, the protégé of van Zandt and Clark quickly became a master storyteller in his own right, with his songs being recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, The Pretenders, and countless others.
After being hired to play bass in Clark's touring band at age 19, Earle honed his craft creating a string of songs that became hits for other artists, before he finally produced his own EP with the first line-up of The Dukes in 1982 titled Pink & Black. The next three years saw Earle recording with and then swiftly departing several record labels.
Then, in 1986 came the release of Earle’s seminal Guitar Town, which shot to #1 on the country charts. What followed was a varied array of releases including the Grammy Award-winning albums The Revolution Starts...Now (2004), Washington Square Serenade (2007), and the aforementioned Townes.
Last year, Earle celebrated the 30th Anniversary of his legendary album, Copperhead Road, which contained a title track that exposed Earle to a global mainstream audience thanks to its being embraced by country and rock radio and millions of listeners drawn to the tale of a Vietnam vet who substituted marijuana for moonshine while following in his daddy's outlaw career path.
A true Renaissance man, Earle has become a novelist; a film, TV, and stage actor; playwright; record producer; and radio host. In 2017, he appeared in the off-Broadway play Samara, for which he also wrote a score The New York Times called “exquisitely subliminal.” And his recording of Tom Waits' song "Way Down in the Hole" became the theme song for the fifth season of the Emmy nominated HBO series The Wire in which Earle appeared as the character Walon.
When considering van Zandt and Clark, Earle said his musical mentors were “like Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to me.”
“When it comes to mentors, I’m glad I had both,” Earle said. “If you asked Townes what’s it all about, he’d hand you a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. If you asked Guy the same question, he’d take out a piece of paper and teach you how to diagram a song, what goes where. Townes was one of the all-time great writers, but he only finished three songs during the last fifteen years of his life.
"Guy had cancer and wrote songs until the day he died...he painted, he built instruments, he owned a guitar shop in the Bay Area where the young Bobby Weir hung out," Earle continued. "He was older and wiser. You hung around with him and knew why they call what artists do disciplines. Because he was disciplined.”
That's where The Newtown Bee picked up on the conversation.
The Newtown Bee: You were 19 when you started playing bass with Guy Clark. You talk on your website about respecting his discipline, but what were some other things you most admired about him?
Steve Earle: Number one, he was willing to support younger writers like me — he went out of his way in that respect. So I toured with him playing bass for this one cycle when his first record came out. And there's this tune of mine called "Mercenary Song" that we're doing on this tour because it was one of the songs that Guy used to play all the time. He was always telling people to listen to that song. That was the way he was, he got me my first publishing deal by browbeating his own publisher until they signed me.
And it's true, he was disciplined. He was the opposite of Townes — Townes wasn't. He was great, and he was born to be a songwriter, but Guy got up every day and worked at it. He worked at it every day until he just couldn't anymore, which was shortly before he died.
TNB: Did Guy influence your early songwriting differently that he did as you became well-seasoned at it?
Earle: There's been several times in my career when I've gone back to Guy. For one thing, the way he wrote was sort of the way I wrote anyway — he was a story songwriter. And that's what I naturally tended to do, really prose that just happened to rhyme, stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. I'm always more proud of the more poetic stuff as Townes was, but it didn't seem to come as easy to me.
Guy was, too. But Guy was probably the greatest story songwriter that ever lived, so it was easy for me to gravitate toward him.
TNB: How about in terms of performing? Were there things you saw Guy doing that you adopted or paid tribute to when you moved up to the frontman position playing music on stage?
Earle: That's where we did things a little differently, Guy didn't talk much. I'm the opposite, I talk a lot on stage. But there were little things like, I use the same kind of guitar pick he used to — sort of a combination flat pick and thumb pick. And my guitar style is based on Guy's, Townes', and John Prine's when you get right down to it.
TNB: Do you recall any reaction or feedback from Guy before he passed about the way you sang or performed his songs?
Earle: I recorded "The Last Gunfighter Ballad" when Guy turned 60. A bunch of us made a private record for him as a gift. So I made a solo recording of that song and Guy really liked it.
After we did that recording, they wanted me to cut it again but I said I didn't think I could beat that performance. At the time Guy was still alive and he said he didn't think so either. He really liked it and would play it for people and that was the only time he ever heard me do one of his songs.
On the last night of our sessions for this record I tried to beat that take of that Gunfighter Ballad, and I couldn't do it. So the only cut on Guy that wasn't recorded during our session was the 20-year-old cut from that recording we made for him on his birthday.
TNB: You both shared the experience of having a lot of huge talents recording or performing songs you wrote. Is it generally more positive or challenging for you to hear your songs sung by other voices and played by other players?
Earle: It's always positive for me. Maybe sometimes I don't care for it, you know? But it still means I made a little bit of money from something I wrote.
And my way might not always be right. All my songs are written for me to perform, but that doesn't mean I have a right to enforce how others do them. I may not like it, but I'm not sure that matters one way or the other in the end.
TNB: As plans for the new album solidified, were you already pretty set on which tunes of Guy Clark's you wanted to include?
Earle: The short answer is, yes. I thought a lot about it beforehand and there are probably a lot of people who are disappointed that songs like "The Cape" aren't there, and some other songs. But after wrestling with it, I finally had to decide. So if somebody wants to make their own Guy Clark album, they can put "The Cape" on it (laughing).
TNB: Which songs on Guy were particularly satisfying to you as you settled into finishing the new album?
Earle: Probably "L.A. Freeway" and "Dublin Blues," because I think I did something with it that was more electric than Guy did it, without changing the song [structure] at all.
And then "Randall Knife," just because that was intimidating. It was so personal for me that I almost didn't record it. But I did and I'm glad I did. A lot of people would have missed it if it wasn't there.
TNB: Why was it intimidating?
Earle: Performing it on stage every night is tough. But that's what the job is. Everybody's got a father, and relationships between fathers and sons is probably one of the most complicated relationships that exists in the universe. No matter what, fathers and sons — even in the best relationships — they're competitive and there are always issues. That's just the way it is.
TNB: Were there any cuts that came out better in the end than you thought while you were recording them?
Earle: You know John, we rehearsed this record so much during soundchecks before we went into the studio that when we did go in we recorded it in just five days. There's no overdubbed vocals and no overdubbed solos. That's because this band is really good, I knew they were that good, and I knew we could do it, so I didn't worry about it all that much.
TNB: You're coming into Ridgefield with the latest configuration of a band you originally formed in the mid-1970s. Tell me a bit about The Dukes circa 2019.
Earle: They can play everything that we do and everything I've written. I've made bluegrass records, rock records, and I missed doing the kind of country stuff that was part of my earlier years.
This band can do all that stuff, and because we've got Eleanor (Whitmore), we can do some pretty good versions of the bluegrass stuff. I finally have a band that can do the entire range of what I write.
TNB: As you began enjoying creative success as more than a musician, and you found positive receptions to acting, poetry, writing fiction shorts, a novel, hosting a radio show, and producing a play, did you take these new career opportunities in stride, or were each of these diversions part of some concerted plan of where you wanted to go next?
Earle: At some point I decided I was going to do each of the things that I did. I don't think any of it was ever a accident.
But early on I had no idea I was ever going to write a book in 1986. I had been trying to be a good songwriter for so long — and to be a singer-songwriter. And I struggled for 13 years trying to get there. But you know, things come along. At one point I thought I should stick to just one thing, and then other influences come along.
Look at Tony Fitzpatrick, the artist who does my album covers [including Guy]. Art is his day job, but he also does some acting. So I finally figured out that at least trying to do all these other things helped inform my day job. And me being an actor, that was totally [co-creator of The Wire] David Simon's idea. In fact, I turned down acting gigs out of hand when I was much younger and better looking.
But then I figured out it was just another kind of storytelling, and I think I've become a better live performer since I started acting.
For tickets ($62.50) call or visit the box office, 203-438-5795 or go online at ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a non-profit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street.
John Prine will join Steve Earle & The Dukes headlining the 6th Annual Rockland Bergen Music Festival June 22 and 23 at German Masonic Park in Tappan, NY. Early bird tickets are currently on sale on at www.rbmfestival.com.
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