About 15 minutes into Steve Earle’s latest album, Jerry Jeff, the scratchy strains of ‘Mr Bojangles’ drift out. His ‘Mr Bojangles’ is creaky and warm, played with tenderness and respect to its songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker, a mentor to Earle for many years.
Jerry Jeff is a tribute to Walker, who, along with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, took Earle under his wing as a young songwriter in Nashville in the ‘70s. Earle paid homage to Zandt and Clark in the same way, with 2009’s Townes and with 2019’s GUY. Speaking from his apartment in New York City on an icy evening, Earle speaks of the trio with great reverence and love.
Earle talks at a rapid clip and with great enthusiasm. To speak with him is to roam over politics and American society and songwriting and Trumpism and theatre and what Sydney beach he thinks is the best (it’s Coogee). At the beginning of our chat, he energetically explains his love for the Arsenal Football Club, until we realise we are quickly eating into our allotted interview time and better get on with it. He’s quick to laugh, and label himself a “pitiful motherfucker.”
Steve Earle – ‘Mr Bojangles’
Over the last few years, Earle has dealt with more than his fair share of hardship. He split from his wife, Allison Moorer, in 2012, and then suffered the tragic loss of his son, the acclaimed songwriter Justin Townes Earle, in 2020 from an accidental overdose. Mere months after the loss, Earle recorded the tender and wrenching album J.T., covering his late son’s songs. He mentions him briefly in our chat, simply to say the months following his passing were a very dark time.
Now in his late 60s, Earle is busier than ever – he’s currently writing songs for a musical, Tender Mercies, and his touring schedule is typically hectic, playing around 63 shows in a 90 day period over the North American summer. He’ll return to our shores for Bluesfest, one of his favourite festivals, to play through Jerry Jeff and other beloved songs from his catalogue, like ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘The Galway Girl’.
Music Feeds: I want to start off with a question that’s not really related to music at all. You’ve been very politically engaged throughout your whole career. What is your feeling of politics over there at the moment? Do you think it’s calming down a little after Trump?
Steve Earle: It’s funny ‘cos I’ve pissed some of my friends off because I’ve reached a point where… As much as Trumpism pisses me off, as much damage that was done, it was sort of allowed to happen by people on my side of the political spectrum who completely forgot that what they were supposed to be doing was making the world a better place for working people. That’s the whole idea of the left.
You know, I did Ghosts of West Virginia as a study in all that. But most of my friends were like, “Well what about West Virginia?” They started saying bad shit about it and started bitching about Joe Manchin. They’ll say it’s a red state, and it’s not – they’ve still got a Democratic senator whether you like him or not. And it’s better than having a Republican senator.
To tell you the truth, I started supporting Joe Biden very early on, because I thought he was the only guy that could get elected, with things as divided as they were. He really hasn’t done badly at all.
MF: There’s this view by some that America is crumbling, the vision of the American dream is fading. What is your view on that as someone who has observed it for many years?
Steve: I just think that… if we can’t have a conversation with somebody that we know we’re gonna disagree with at the beginning of that conversation, there is no democracy. We’re fucked. Hopefully we’ll learn that in this process. It’s the only thing we can hope for.
Steve Earle & the Dukes: Ghosts of West Virginia
MF: You released your 22nd album early this year, Jerry Jeff. What was it about the music of Jerry Jeff Walker that struck you? What made you want to do this record?
Steve: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff – those were the guys for me. I found out about Guy Clark from Jerry Jeff Walker, from his records. ‘Mr Bojangles’ was written in Townes’ old department in Houston.
My drama teacher in high school gave me a copy of his first record cause he wanted to me to sing ‘Bojangles’ in a play we were doing in high school. So I’ve been singing that song since I was 14 years old. I was kind of known for it in my high school, and then when I was 19 I met Jerry Jeff Walker and I had to stop singing it. And one of best things about the project was I got to sing that song again.
MF: You’ve done this kind of project for Townes, for Guy. Is it almost a vocation for you to do these albums, to pay tribute to these artists?
Steve: It’s funny, I thought I was all done with that. But somebody mentioned that I should probably do a Doug Sahm tribute record at some point, and I probably will. He was my first rock‘n’roll hometown hero.
Those three guys [you mentioned] had such a direct influence on me. I got an old fashioned-style apprenticeship from them, and not everybody gets that anymore, so I’m just trying to say thank you.
MF: You’ve spent all of your life on the road. You’re coming to Australia solo next year, not with the Dukes. Touring is a really tough business now – it’s more expensive than ever before. Are you having to make more calls about going solo now?
Steve: It’s not about me making the calls; it’s about them making a call. They couldn’t keep up with the way that I tour. The way I’m touring now, it’s three months nonstop in the summer, that’s what I do. The rest of the time I gotta keep [son] John Henry in school in New York City.
For the most part, I try to make my money in those three months. There’s no way for me to do that without getting on a bus and staying on it for 90 days. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Steve Earle – ‘The Galway Girl’
MF: You’ve lived in New York for quite a few years now. But you spent some time in Tennessee during the pandemic, is that right?
Steve: Yeah, I went back for like three months. We went back when everything shut down. We came back and got John Henry in school in early September. I just about went batshit crazy ‘cos I couldn’t go anywhere. I luckily had a nice house in the country but then Justin died at the end of that period. So I really needed to get out of there. I don’t remember it as a particularly great time in my life. I don’t think anybody does.
MF: We’ve talked about you paying tribute to Townes, Guy, and now Jerry Jeff. Is there anyone you would like to cover your songs after you’re gone?
Steve: Oh, I don’t know. I won’t give a fuck if I’m gone – cover ’em now! [Laughs] Cover the fuckers now!
Steve Earle Australian Tour 2023
- Monday, 3rd April – Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW (twin headline with Lucinda Williams)
- Thursday, 6th & Friday, 7th April – Bluesfest @ Byron Events Farm, Tyagarah NSW
- Sunday, 9th April – Bluesfest Melbourne @ Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre VIC