Multiple Grammy winner Steve Earle, the outspoken singer-songwriter responsible for a host of classic Americana songs including Copperhead Road, Guitar Town and Galway Girl, will be stopping off in Lerwick next Thursday for a re-arranged show at Clickimin.
The Virginian-born erstwhile outlaw is returning for what will be his second solo show in the isles. He had been due to appear for a sold-out gig here last December but an untimely bout of freezing fog put paid to that, leaving him stranded in Inverness and prompting an expletive-laden curse, nine months on, at whoever was responsible for the siting of the city’s airport.
Speaking from the countryside retreat in Woodstock which he shares with fifth wife, singer Allison Moorer, and their newborn baby, Earle told The Shetland Times he was very much looking forward to making up the show as part of a short five-date tour on this side of the Atlantic. By accident rather than design, the tour will take in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
I approached this interview with a degree of trepidation, for Earle has in the past had a reputation for being somewhat cantankerous in his dealings with the press. But that could not have been further from the truth on this occasion, as he courteously waxed lyrical about everything from how he enjoyed a short fishing trip on his previous date here to why it is well worth studying the collapse of western European empires in the past few centuries.
When he was here last, in 2003, he was impressed – as so many are – by the distinctive quality of local musicianship. “I remember going to hear some traditional music after the show and being struck by how unique it was. I’ve heard a lot of music on a lot of little islands scattered around the world and music in Shetland is unique, almost like western swing, country music and with piano – piano was at one time a strong tradition in Irish music, but it’s now left. So few of the instruments are really native to those islands but anything that washes up, people play it and often play it better.”
Earle, now 55, first shot to fame in the eighties with successful country-rock albums including Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. But serious pharmaceutical problems including a debilitating heroin addiction saw him wind up in prison on drugs and firearms charges. His low point came when mentor and cult singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt – whose own addictions were much more severe – came to visit and gave him a temperance lecture (“at that point I knew I was in f*****g trouble”).
But he has been clean for a decade and a half now. Recent years have seen him dipping his toes in a range of Americana-related musical styles, particularly a winning acoustic bluegrass sound. The opening track of his last self-penned album poignantly bids farewell to his former home of Tennessee and also to Guitar Town. He is clearly revelling in making the most of the talents he has, also appearing as a recovering drug addict in acclaimed US TV series The Wire, and believes the notion that the best songs are invariably written under the influence of one substance or another to be a myth.
“I wouldn’t pay too much attention to people’s behaviour. You need to discern any equation between artists’ behaviour and the art they make. Towards the end of my drug/alcohol period, I quit writing for five years. I write better songs than ever now [and] I go to the gym every day. I think this is a God-given gift and if you abuse it, it will eventually go away.”
That was a lesson he learned all too painfully in 1997. His close friend and guiding hand Van Zandt died, aged 52, after a heart attack having battled with alcohol and hard drugs addictions for decades. Earle’s abortive visit to Shetland had been part of his tour in support of last year’s Townes album. Though he has moved on artistically since – he is due to begin working with producer T-Bone Burnett on a new record in November – he will still be showcasing tracks from the album.
Cherry-picking 15 songs from Van Zandt’s catalogue was something of a therapeutic process for Earle, who recalls visiting Van Zandt as a youngster in the late 1970s. He asked if he could recommend any good books. As well as a volume on Native American history, Van Zandt urged Earle to plough his way through the 1,000-plus pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Upon returning with questions about the dense literary tome, Earle discovered that Van Zandt had not actually read it himself. “I just thought you should,” he was idly informed by his mentor.
“He was such a huge part of who I was, who I became as a writer,” says Earle. “What I found out is I’m even more Townes at my core than I thought I was. It blew my mind the more I got into it. I hired a friend who’s a really good engineer to record it on my pro-tools rig. He said that sometimes he felt like he was witnessing something so intimate that he shouldn’t really have been in the room.”
In the past decade he has been known as much for his outspoken left-wing political views as his music. He is firmly ensconced in Greenwich Village, New York, having become frustrated at the level of intolerance he experienced elsewhere.
He says he wanted to be able to walk out of his front door and see a same-sex biracial couple walking down the street hand in hand: “I was a socialist living in Tennessee … I could have been a black homosexual socialist, and I’d have been even more an outcast than I was, but I feel like I fit in where I live now.”
One thing he does not comprehend is New Yorkers – and city dwellers in general – who spend their time literally shutting out what is going on around them: “I don’t understand people who ride around with ear buds in – you miss life, you miss the songs if you internalise like that. All the material is around you.”
An outspoken critic of the Bush administration and the fear and paranoia in his country following 9/11, Earle was vilified by right wingers for John Walker Blues, his portrait of John Walker Linde, an American citizen who joined the Taliban.
Is he any happier with the state of the nation under Barack Obama’s presidency? “These are really, really hard times. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Obama for a single job lost since he took office. I’m disappointed in a lot of things Obama has not done, but he’s done everything he said he was going to do. But then we could have elected a cocker spaniel and done better. Obama is a really smart guy and I still have some faith that he’ll rise to the occasion.”
He believes the US has a lot of growing up to do as it comes to terms with the impending end of its empire. The biggest problem is that successive American governments have tried to “take over the world and lower taxes at the same time – the Brits and the Romans didn’t do it that way”.
Instead of spending a trillion dollars on war in the Middle East, it might have been cheaper to “just buy the oil from the people whose feet it was beneath”, but now the country is bankrupt and it is affecting everyone in and beyond America – including established musicians like himself: “I didn’t sell out the Olympia in Dublin for the first time in my career. I was about to slit my wrists, but the promoter said they were perfectly happy with the sales given the state of the economy.”
Loosely following the literary singer-songwriter path which Bob Dylan blazed a trail for, Earle wants his music to be “like literature that you can consume while driving in your car”. Although such artists are not especially prominent in popular culture today, he does believe there are good young exponents around. He name-checks the homespun hymns of Brooklyn singer Ana Egge and the work of Chicago’s Joe Pug, along with his own son Justin Townes Earle, as being among the fine literary writers making music today. “You have to look a little harder to find us and we’re like jazz musicians, on independent labels putting out our own records.”
Finally, he says making up the date in Lerwick means a lot to him and he promises to play plenty of “what people want to hear” next week. He also hopes to bring his band The Dukes here one day: “I think you’ve got to try harder for places that are more remote and don’t get as much. If I had to cancel a show in Dublin, I’m going to play Dublin next time anyway. It’s probably more important to me to make up a show in Shetland – you’ve really got to be going there to get there; there’s nothing past and there’s nothing on the way but Orkney. People are generally looking for excuses to invade the mainland.”
● Steve Earle plays in the main hall at Clickimin on Thursday at 7.30pm, with support from local singer Duncan Phillips, and tickets are still available from the Shetland Box Office priced £20.