- 17 Jan 20
To celebrate Steve Earle's 65th birthday, we're revisiting his classic 1999 interview with Hot Press – where he discusses his colourful past and his love of Irish music.
When you play music that's been christened after a piece of land, it's probably safe to say that it's folk music. Bill Monroe might have patented it, but bluegrass has had its torch carried more faithfully than most musics in this funny ol' rock 'n' roll world of ours. Monroe came up with a name for this fiddle and banjo music when he named it after the tobacco-plantation region of Kentucky, and somehow it seems fitting that a narcotic has lured Steve Earle back onto the path of righteousness well, kinda.
Earle's earned himself a reputation with courtroom judges and punters alike. And the last few years have disproven the old cliché that says an artist produces his best work only when life buffets him every which way. After last year's Grammy-nominated El Corazón and 1996's I Feel Alright, it looks like Earle's rewriting the rule book (a nightmare for his parole officer, no doubt, but a boon for his fans) by producing what's been said to be his best work yet. And this year's favourite, The Mountain's aiming to make it a tidy trio of gems. Teaming up with bluegrass legends, The Del McCoury Band, Steve Earle's playing like there s no tomorrow.
Earle wastes no time in giving credit where credit is due for his latest foray into hardcore bluegrass.
"It was my first show in Nashville, after I got out of jail," he offers, pausing to order a cappuccino with extra sugar ("don t let anyone tell you: you can"t get enough sugar" Earle insists by the by), "and about four songs into the show, I noticed that the audience was just going nuts, and I thought to myself 'I didn't do anything that cool', and then I looked behind me and saw Bill Monroe wandering onstage. That was when I lost control of the show for the first time in my career. He just played there with me, and I tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life."
Earle found himself drawn to Bill Monroe's music for a number of reasons, one of which was Monroe's sheer human spirit.
"What I went through was pretty public," Earle admits, referring to his countless narcotics busts and his detention, at the Lone Star State's pleasure, "and I remember hearing how Monroe was the only person who treated Hank Williams with the respect he deserved when Williams arrived at the stage door of The Grand Ol Opry. Now, all Bill knew about me was what he read in the papers, and I couldn't figure out why he paid so much attention to me, but I've since heard from some people that this was where he was coming from. He just thought it was unfair that the Nashville press treated me so bad."
I remind Earle of a night I saw him play in Antone's, one of Texas finest venues, way back in the early 90s. It was a hot night, and Earle's late arrival heralded what could only be described as an onslaught of atomic energy across the stage. He laughs in recollection of those hairy days.
"That was the night I got arrested before the gig!," he blithely declares. "That was a pretty bad period, and although I played some good gigs, I was a miserable human being. I'd spent the first two hours of that evening handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper's car."
I venture to ask the reason for such heavy policework. Earle reports that it was simply for not having a driver's licence and 'for being a hillbilly, in general'.
Such colourful events were far from uncommon around that time in Earle's life, although the colour tended towards the darker end of the spectrum. Life's palette had few shiny happy colours for Earle at that time, but that's all changed now, what with extended trips to places like Galway, and nights spent in sessions in the local hostelries. In fact, Earle's so comfortable in his bluegrass shoes these days, that he includes some dobro on The Mountain, a step towards musical inclusiveness which Bill Monroe would surely never condone.
"When Bill was asked to comment on the state of bluegrass one time, he offers, "he said 'I tell you one thing, it don't need a dobro in it', and he didn't have a dobro player in his band, but then again, a dobro player ran off with one of his girlfriends . . . we did use a dobro on this album."
Dobro-aversions aside, Monroe's memory will be honoured by Earle and The Del McCoury Band when they tour The Mountain in May of this year.
"I'm going to wear suits on this tour, Earle declares, as though he were born in one, "for a couple of reasons. One is that the McCoury's do, and also because it was really important to Bill that they were the very first band in The Grand Ol Opry to wear a suit and tie, rather than a costume."
Bluegrass is the baby of folk music, having first seen the light of day back in the late 30s and early 40s, and Steve reckons it only really came into its own when Monroe hired Earl Scruggs on five string banjo, which lent bluegrass its most recognisable trademark.
The Mountain features Earle at his torch-song and twangy best, complete with nasal drones and the odd yodel that'd leave the rest of Nashville s resident country boys in the shade. Some critics have been less than impressed with this homage to hill country singing style, but Earle is unrepentant.
"I always have been drawn to bluegrass," he insists, "and you can hear it in my music from the very beginning. It's always been there, although there are still loads of things that I can't do, like play rhythm guitar up to speed all night long. I just physically can't do it. The other thing is, that the best music on this tour is probably going to happen in the dressing rooms, so I'm going to record every minute of it."
Whatever about Earle's facility with bluegrass, he's certainly not shy of acknowledging the influence of Irish music on his playing. He's spent a couple of lengthy periods in the West over the past few years, and the mandolin tells that tale far more clearly than he ever could.
"When I play mandolin, it comes out a lot more Irish than it does bluegrass," he nods. "The first song I ever played mandolin on was 'Copperhead Road', which made me learn to play the mandolin! The way I play just naturally fits into Irish music and I wrote most of this album on mandolin first. You see, people like me don't write songs. We just make them up and the mandolin really dictated the tone of the songs."
Earle can readily trace his exposure to Irish music back to what he heard when he was growing up.
"Old time country music and bluegrass is where I first came across Irish music," he avers. "It's happened so often in Galway that when I'm talking to players we'll come across tunes that have a different name in the States than they do in Ireland, but they're the same tune. That happens quite a bit. The biggest differences are that bluegrass is based on improvisation, whereas Irish music, in its purest most traditional sense, is based on knowing the tune, and knowing it fuckin' verbatim, and everybody plays exactly tune and you don't deviate from it or some drunken bodhran player will get in your face."
"The cool thing about Irish music is that it's so open and it welcomes almost anything in from the outside, pretty much like Ireland does," Earle continues, hardly pausing to draw breath. "None of these instruments are Irish, apart from the bodhran itself."
The inextricable links between Irish ballads and American country is one that Steve Earle relishes too:
"Irish music was full of songs about people killing people with silver daggers, "he grins, "and that kind of thing survived to find its way into American commercial country music in the 50s and 60s, and it's been completely, totally and neatly surgically removed since. Which is a real tragedy I think."
Earle has been known to take a shine to Donal Lunny, whom, he insists, has been a primary influence on him since he first encountered him playing with Sharon Shannon in Nashville some four years ago.
"The thing about Donal that knocks me out is that he's a great field general when they're out there playing, and it's real effortless with him. He's the most musical person that I think I've ever met. He's just absolutely a musician's musician. He learns something every time he plays with somebody, and he teaches every time he plays with somebody. Some people criticise him for not sticking with the pure tradition, but what I say to that is this: he's founded the four most influential bands in Irish music what's he gotta do? And he's nowhere near done yet. I just love the Coolfin album."
One thing that Earle hasn't been enamoured with is the clique-ishness of traditional musicians, as has been his experience in playing sessions:
"Of course they treat me differently than they do others," he observes, "which is unfortunate, but it's only human nature, I guess. But they encouraged me to play in sessions, which I only did occasionally, and I sang a few songs."
Treated him differently with reverence?
"Well, they kissed my ass," he declares, "and that's not how I want to be treated. They treated me differently though, in that there was a fiddle player from Cavan who is new in town, and he's really good, but he's going to have to prove himself, and they were puttin' him through the wringer."
It's this apprenticeship system that riles Earle most, and he doesn't just talk the talk. He walked the walk by playing four gigs in the Roisin Dubh last November and December, with not just the cream of Irish musicians such as Sharon Shannon gathered around him, but some lesser known but equally talented performers too.
"It was pretty raw," he suggests, "cos we rehearsed it only that afternoon, but we had a wonderful bouzouki player by the name of Bill Wright, who builds some of the best bodhrans in the country too. In fact he's building a huge millennium drum at the moment. And then there was Colm Naughton who's a great banjo player. Now, I made the fiddle player from Cavan join in, and they treat him differently now."
Is it likely that we'll see the Earlian school of Irish music emerging from the cocoon he's created in Galway?
His brow furrows as though such a prospect were remotely conceivable, and then dismisses the notion with a flourish.
"I don't think so, because I can't even play these instruments," he insists. "Although I did write a song for Sharon Shannon and I, which will probably be on her next album, called 'Galway Girl'. It's a good song and it's got a really cool tune. But that's it really."
His ammunition for songwriting has been replenished further by stories of derring do, of unexpected origin.
"I've heard this story, and that someone is writing a screenplay about it, but they better fuckin' hurry up cos I m writing too," he discloses. "Los Patricios were a regiment of Irish soldiers who joined the American army back in the last century, and when they were sent to Mexico, they realised that they were fighting on the wrong side. So the entire regiment joined the Mexican army. Some of them were captured and executed, and that's where the term gringo comes from, which is the term used by the Mexicans to describe Americans or anyone European. Those guys used to sing Green Grow The Lilacs and the Mexicans heard it and called them gringos. There's definitely a song in there somewhere!"
Anyway, Earle circa 1999 is fast becoming a multimedia babe, and will be too busy to loiter round these parts for much longer:
"While I was in Galway I wrote four songs and five poems and two complete short stories in 62 days," he reveals, referring to the imminent publication of a collection of his prose. "I wrote most of El Corazán in Galway, so the place has been good to me. I'll certainly buy a place there soon. You know it's so hard for me to write at my house because so many people live there. My driveway looks like Honest Steve's Used Cars ! I'm the eldest of five kids, and that s the only reason I've been on the road the bus is the only place where I have my own room!"
Despite the fast track, Earle s pretty comfortable with the pace and direction of life these days, even if it does seem a touch more sedentary than his previous existence.
"I'm going to be around for a little while," he smiles. "I tried everything in the world not to be here, and I finally found out that if you have a gift then you're supposed to take care of it. I didn't ask for it, and I'm not in charge of it, but if you abuse a gift, bad things happen to you. I stopped abusing it, and bad things quit happening to me. I'm like the guy who goes to the doctor and says 'Doctor, it hurts when I do this', and the doctor says: 'Well, don't do that!' And I'm just not doing it anymore."