High, Low, and In Between
Steve Earle talks Townes
By Doug Freeman,
11:45AM, Fri. Jun. 19, 2009
When Steve Earle was only 16 years old, he had already dropped out of high school in San Antonio and begun playing in coffeehouses and any bars he could sneak into. In Austin and Houston, the folk scene of the early Seventies was thriving, and Earle went looking for his place within it, tracing the winding and wrecked path of his idol, Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt's inspiration consumed the younger songwriter’s music and life, and helped propel him to national acclaim with the release of his first album, 1986’s Guitar Town. Alcohol and heroin had taken everything away from Van Zandt by his arrest in 1993. More than a decade after his death, the spirit still lingers indelibly upon Earle.
Last year, holed up in his tiny New York City apartment, Earle began recording the long-planned tribute to his late friend and mentor. Between songs, the tape kept running as Earle would talk about Van Zandt, telling stories that have slipped from mere memory into legend, quietly baring the intimacy between Earle and Van Zandt that rings throughout his new album, Townes (New West).
Speaking from his home just outside of Woodstock, NY., which he shares with his wife Allison Moorer, Earle reflected back on his past with Townes and finally making the tribute album to him. Earle plays a special solo acoustic show tonight at the Paramount. Joe Pug opens. 8pm.
Southside of the Tracks: From what I’ve read about your recording of the new album, it seems this was very much an intimate session before you took it into the studio, just you recording in your bedroom.
Steve Earle: Well, in my apartment. We have a one bedroom apartment. Basically, we have a house in Woodstock that we bought in August, so Allison [Moorer] vacated the place for five days. She went to Woodstock and I turned our living room into a recording studio for a week, just to be able to do it and keep some continuity. Steve Christiansen came up from Houston to help me push buttons, which is kinda like flying hookers into Vegas. He’s the engineer at Shooter Hill in Houston, and he’s got a girlfriend in New York. He’s really good with microphones and is a Pro Tools whiz. I could have recorded it myself, but it would have taken a lot more time, and I could be an artist like you’re supposed to be if I had somebody to push the buttons. Basically that was the idea. Steve would take the stuff back to his girlfriend's at night and listen to it. He said it felt like they were eavesdropping on something, so that gave us a yardstick, and everything I overdubbed after that I was very careful to not destroy the intimacy. The possible exception may be “Lungs,” but I think even that is sort of inward in a weird, sorta loud way.
The ceiling was so low that I couldn’t stand up. My normal MO is to always stand up in the recording studio. I never sit on a chair in the studio. But my ceiling is so low, because I live in a ground floor apartment, I had to sit in a chair. Otherwise the ceiling was so close that you’d get this really honking reflection of the ceiling. So I had to sit in a straight backed chair the entire time. But I was trying to emulate performances that I remembered of these songs by Townes, that was what the basis was, my memory of him performing these songs rather than any recording he ever made.
SotT: Was this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
SE: Yeah, I’ve talked about doing it forever. But I’m also a singer-songwriter, so it kept getting put off for things that I felt like I needed to do and say. People flying airplanes into tall buildings, and the President of the United States doing something particularly stupid, or I fall in love, or I move to New York – so it would just get put off.
SotT: I want to go back to those days down in Houston and Austin when you were just getting started, and what your impression of that scene was like. You were considered the kid of the bunch, playing with all these great songwriters, so what was that time like for you?
SE: It was strange. I went to Houston when everyone else was moving to Austin, and then on to Nashville. So I was a little contrary to what was going on. We loved Austin, but we kinda thought people in Austin were pussies too in some ways. Austin was too good. The weather was too good, the girls were too pretty, and the dope was too cheap, so we had a hard time getting anything done there. We had a hard enough time in Houston, but it was gloomy, the weather went from oppressive to violent, those were kind of the two tiers in Houston. Austin is where Shiva’s Head Band was, but even the 13th Floor Elevators were really from Houston. I think if you were a musician in Texas at the time, everybody sorta looked up to Houston in a way. There was something indescribable there. I mean, Austin was the place where there was gigs, and it was a great place to be. There were a ton of girls in halter tops. But then Houston was where ZZ Top was from, where Lightnin' Hopkins was from, and where I heard that I would have the best chance of finding Townes when he passed through Texas, so that’s where I went. I went to Houston stalking Townes.
SotT: So from the very start, when you first started playing…
SE: Yeah, I was in San Antonio and I heard about Townes as soon as I started playing coffeehouses. I went to Austin first just for weekends and the day, and I’d go to the Checkered Flag, Castle Creek, the Saxon Pub. I saw Townes in the Saxon Pub, probably the first time I saw him. Then I figured out he spent more time in Houston, so I started going to Houston, too. When I was 14, I ran away from home and ended up in Houston, and saw Townes once at Sand Mountain during that trip. It was just one of those things. I had also heard about the Rubaiyat in Dallas, but to me, there was no difference between hearing about the Rubaiyat in Dallas and the Quiet Knight in Chicago. Or Castle Creek, or Sand Mountain, or the Old Quarter. Those were places I heard of from older musicians that traveled before I traveled. I met Townes as he was making the record that ended up being called The Nashville Sessions. It was originally supposed to be called Seven Come Eleven, but it was never legally released; it was released as bootleg years later. The songs were re-recorded on Flying Shoes several years later, a lot of them were. I met him as he was getting ready to go to Nashville to record that, and I remember him coming back saying he had made the best record he had ever made. I still think it’s his best record, too. It’s a shame that it sort of never saw the light of day – maybe things would have been different. But then again, the main reason Townes isn’t more famous is Townes’ fault.
SotT: Achieving big success out of this group, was there a kind of disconnect between you and these guys you were tied to and those guys that you owed so much to?
SE: Some guys around that scene that probably thought I was an overachiever, and some people thought I was cheating somehow. But not Townes, and not Guy [Clark]. I sometimes have gotten bogged down in feeling guilty because I’ve been more successful. If you want to measure it by money, then I’m more successful than some of my contemporaries, but I’m a communist, and I don’t give a fuck about that. That’s not what I measure it in. I mean, it’s great, I’m really glad I’ve made a living, but any decisions I made that were different weren’t about money. I was trying to achieve a wider audience, and I did make some decisions that were … well, Townes never would get involved in the process of making records. He thought his responsibility was to write the songs. I wasn’t great at making records at first. I don’t have records I’m ashamed of, but I didn’t know enough to exert more of my own influence and didn’t know how to say what I wanted and demand what I wanted when I was making Guitar Town and Exit 0 and even Copperhead Road. The first records that sound the way I wanted them to were the records I began making when I got out of jail. That’s a learning process, and Townes, I don’t think, was ever interested in that. He was perfectly content to trust other people with that.
[In the late Seventies] I went to Mexico because my publishing deal was in limbo and just commuted back and forth between Nashville. I was at Townes’ in Williamson County and was parked in the driveway and going to town to see if I could scare up a publishing deal, and I remember him telling me that I didn’t need a publishing deal, that I wasn’t Bob McDill, I was Woody Guthrie. And I said, "You know what, forget that, I don’t want to have to get a job at this juncture." [Laughs]
So there were times that I did things differently, but Guy, on the other hand, had a publishing deal and got me my publishing deal. He was much more practical. That’s how he made his living. We were aware we weren’t going to become the next Bob McDill or Roger Miller or Willie Nelson, but we were there because of Kris Kristofferson. We were all songwriters that started writing songs because of Bob Dylan, and Nashville made sense to us because of Kris Kristofferson. Just the idea that this writer writing at this really high literary level could maybe make some part of his living as a songwriter and establish himself and then go on to be an artist in his own right. Kris was gone by the time I got there, and he was really gone by the time Guy got there, but that’s what we were thinking about, that’s what we’d been watching that made us decide there was some reason for us to be there.
SotT: Having read the recent biographies on Townes, he seems like he was a difficult person to care about.
SE: Well, I believe you either care about people or you don’t. I mean, yeah, I guess there was a cost and there were probably some people that distanced themselves because of it. Distance developed between us physically just because of what we did for a living. The last time I saw Townes, the last time we were in the same room, was the night the Bluebird [Café] record was recorded, which was a year-and-a-half before he died. I talked to him on the phone several times after that. Guy and him played a lot of the same places and toured together sometimes, so they saw more of each other the last few years of his life. But Guy went through periods, like there was a period in the Seventies, where Guy didn’t see him that much. I think Guy actually saw Townes less after he moved to Nashville for a while then he did back in the early Seventies when Guy was living in Nashville and Townes would pass through and stay with Guy and Susanna every year. I think we all saw him a little less, just because he was married and he toured some, but most of the time he was just out in Williamson County wandering around that farm for a couple of years.
SotT: In those years right after you got clean and before his death, was it difficult to hang out with him?
SE: Well, I didn’t hang out with anybody that used and drank a lot. I didn’t hang out with Guy a lot, and I think it probably hurt Guy’s feelings some. And I still don’t hang out with Guy as much as I did in the Seventies when I was 19 and 20 years old. I live in New York and do wish I could see him more. I went by and saw him about a year ago, and it was the first time I had been to his house, I realized, since Townes’ wake, and I was really embarrassed about that. I see Guy usually at Strictly Bluegrass every year, right after he plays, and sometimes we do this guitar pull thing together, so I always see him there. I didn’t avoid people that drank and used drugs, but I didn’t hang out much at their houses, either. That wasn’t anything personal. I didn’t go to bars unless I absolutely had to to play, and then I’d go and get back on my bus. It wasn’t about it being a huge a temptation as much as it was just the idea of alcohol itself. I take it very seriously and don’t put the temptation completely out of my reach, but it’s just sort of what you do. The program says you just don’t hang out at places like that. And especially when people are in the middle of actively using, I usually just leave because it’s what I need to do to take care of myself.
SotT: Right after Townes’ death when you went over to Europe, I’ve read about how you were kind of following along the path of his final tour and people were coming up to you with pictures of Townes. I was wondering if you felt a responsibility even then to help preserve Townes legacy?
SE: It was more personal by that point. I beat this drum for a long time while he was alive. When I said that he was the best songwriter in the world, he was very, very much alive. In fact, I said it because I was asked by his publicist for a blurb for the cover of, I guess it was At My Window. So it wasn’t like I didn’t champion Townes when he was alive. After his death it became more personal and was more about missing him. I worried about Guy more than I did anyone else. They were really unconditional best friends, and nobody could hurt Townes anymore. I was more worried about Guy at first. But he seems to be OK, too.