ACL Fest Saturday Interviews
3:30pm, Dell stage
Austin Chronicle: You're living in New York's West Village now, the historical ground zero for singer-songwriters and protest singers.
Steve Earle: Yeah, the records that made me what I am were made by people living in the neighborhood 40 years ago. And dissent in this neighborhood predates the folk-music boom by a century and a half. Thomas Paine died four blocks from here. John Reed wrote Ten Days That Shook the World a block-and-a-half away, above my favorite Thai restaurant. Even 200 years ago, people that lived here weren't always buying everything that was coming out of Washington.
AC: The hot-button political moment on your new album, Washington Square Serenade, seems to be "City of Immigrants."
SE: It's a song that exists because I hate [CNN anchor] Lou Dobbs. Living in New York, you get an idea of how dangerous and mean-spirited the immigration debate is. Whenever certain people are at a loss for any other way to distract people, they start pointing the finger at an identifiable group that's identifiable because their skin is all the same color, and it's a different color than yours. Or they speak a different language than you do. I grew up in San Antonio, which is basically occupied Mexico. But New York is where you're aware of the best things Americans are and how important immigration is. Whether it's legal or illegal is bullshit semantics.
AC: Before you migrated to Nashville in the Seventies, you spent some time bouncing in and out of Austin. How important were those years to your evolution?
SE: I was a kid going to see stuff at the Vulcan and the Armadillo. When I played bass with Guy Clark, I spent my 21st birthday onstage at Castle Creek. Later I'd play the Hole in the Wall and the Cactus Cafe if I was lucky enough to get an opening slot. But I never thought that Austin was necessarily the best place in Texas to make art. I left there because the girls were too pretty, the rent was too cheap, and the weather was too good. I knew I'd never get anything done in a place like that. I left because it seemed like the thing to do. I could keep following Townes [Van Zandt] around in circles or settle someplace I could work.
AC: Did you ever think about coming back?
SE: It's so different now. I'd rather remember Texas as me being able to stand there with hair down to my waist next to a guy in a cowboy hat at the Dripping Springs Reunion without getting my ass kicked. Home for me back then was Clarksville, when there was nothing on Sixth but liquor stores. It's so different now that I have to go east of I-35 to find anything that looks like Austin to me. And when a town you love starts to feel like a city that's just about money, real estate, and shelling out for a latte, it's a little heartbreaking.
AC: And now you're back for the ACL Festival, which you've played before.
SE: It's an important one to me. Then again, if you walk onstage at 3:30 in the afternoon like I will, all there really is to say is, "Who the fuck's idea was it to have a festival in September?" But it's hard to complain, because we've had some really good shows in front of great audiences at ACL. There are other festivals where you don't even remember playing, just that it was a financial pleasure. I know guys that piss and moan that they don't get sound-checks at festivals, but everyone out there is making more money than they usually make. Don't let 'em lie to you about that.