Steve Earle: Desperado Remembering a Train

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Steve Earle: Desperado Remembering a Train

Steve Earle  was singing Guy Clark’s songs before he ever met the man who would become his greatest mentor. Earle remembers playing “Desperados Waiting for a Train” at Houston’s Sand Mountain Coffee House as an 18-year-old in 1973. From the stage, he couldn’t help but stare at the facing wall with its big painted faces of Clark, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt, the Mount Rushmore of Texas songwriters born in the 1940s. Earle remembers he had a real good view of the mural because there were so few people in the audience.

“I’d already met Townes,” Earle remembers, “because I had crashed Jerry Jeff Walker’s birthday party, so I knew all about Guy and his songs. In fact, when I moved to Tennessee at 19, I was following Guy there. Guy and Kris had followed Mickey Newbury there, because Mickey had proven you could write good songs in Nashville and get paid for them.”

Earle released Townes, an album of Van Zandt’s songs in 2009, and he knew that he would eventually record and release an album called Guy. Today that album comes out, almost three years after Clark died on May 17, 2016.

“When he passed away, I knew instantly I’d have to make the Guy record,” Earle explains. “I didn’t want to run into that motherfucker onto the other side having made the Townes record and not having made the Guy record.”

Clark (who wrote “Heartbroke” and “L.A. Freeway”) and Van Zandt (who wrote “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”) were not just two of the best songwriters of their generation; they were also best friends and with Guy’s wife Susanna Clark formed an inseparable trio that sometimes lived together and always sought each other out for a first opinion on a new song or a new painting. Earle counts the three of them as his greatest teachers.

“I threw out all the songs I’d written before when I moved to Tennessee,” Earle says of his arrival on Elliston Place in 1974, “because I realized they weren’t good enough. The songs were that much better in Nashville. There were two salons in town, one for songwriting and one for musicianship, that were connected by people who had long hair and listened to the Beatles and Stones as well as country. Guy and Susanna were at the center of the first and John Hartford was at the center of the other. I hung out at both of them and that’s how I learned my trade.”

You can see an example of the Clarks’ salon in action in the documentary movie Heartworn Highways. After enough food has been chewed and enough liquor has been swallowed, the guitars come out and people start singing their latest songs. If you don’t have your own guitar, someone will pass you theirs. As the camera pans around the living room, you can see the young faces of Earle, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Steve Young and Richard Dobson, all surreptitiously looking to Guy and Susanna for a nod of approval.

“It was an education,” Earle told me in 1996. “That’s exactly what it was. They weren’t always the best influence in the world, but they instilled in me the idea that you do this no matter what. It isn’t about money. Townes is self-destructive, and that’s a separate deal, but before that set in, he was committed to doing this, and he’s one of the best songwriters who ever lived. Guy just has a real methodical, intentional focused integrity and always has. That makes an impression on an 18- or 19-year-old.”

“If you could get Guy to tip his hat and put his stamp on what you were doing,” Crowell told me in 2003, “you were on your way. Most of the time the feedback was not getting any at all. I remember the first time I got an acknowledgement from Guy. I played ‘Bluebird Wine’ at one party, and he said, ‘That’s alright, kid.’ That’s all, but I felt like I’d won a Grammy. Then I wrote ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ and Townes almost acknowledged it. That was my goal, to get Townes’ approval, and it took a while.”

“Rodney was just very talented,” Guy Clark told me in 2002; “he played and sang like a bird. Steve was very raw, very talented. His songs had a real interesting edge to them. I didn’t feel like I was taking them under my wing; I thought they were good; I thought I might learn something from them.”

“We were trying to impress Susanna more than Guy or Townes,” Earle says today. “She was such a good painter that she taught us how to carry ourselves as artists. She once told me that the best thing about living in Nashville was not living in the same town as Andy Warhol. I like Andy Warhol, but I appreciated that her standards had nothing to do with fame or success.”

Clark and Van Zandt may have been best friends, but they had very different personalities. The first had an old-fashioned work ethic; no matter what kind of shape he was in, he always showed up when promised and always did the best work he could. The latter was completely spontaneous; he would follow any impulse whenever it arose and wherever it led.

“The difference between Guy and Townes was the difference between Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Earle maintains. “One was very disciplined and the other was very instinctive; one was productive over a long career and the other didn’t write much of anything over the last 10 years of his life. That difference in discipline had everything to do with the way they wrote songs and what they wrote about.

“’Dublin Blues,’ for example, is about Susanna, but it’s also about all the things Guy cared about. That attention to detail is a reflection of his discipline. Townes was disciplined about getting up in the morning and reading, but that was it. He didn’t care about writing songs. I think Guy had to write songs to justify his existence. That’s what he lived for; that’s what he got up every morning to do. Just compare the number of copyrights; Guy had a whole lot more. If you see it as a job, you’re more likely to finish songs and less likely to lose them.”

As a result, when Earle sat down to get serious about the Guy album, he had a lot more songs to choose from than he did for the Townes album. He picked the songs that he was most connected to—the songs he’d been singing for decades and knew by heart. He also learned a few of Clark’s later songs that he liked, “Sis Draper” and “Out in the Parking Lot.”

He thought he had enough but when was unloading at last fall’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, Los Lobos’ Louie Perez came running up. Perez said, “I heard you’re doing the Guy record. Are you doing ‘The Cape’? You have to do ‘The Cape.’” So Earle went back into the studio and recorded “The Cape.”

Earle recorded most of the album with his road band, the Dukes. The arrangements are pretty close to Clark’s, though the Dukes’ gifted pedal-steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson is featured so prominently and inventively—pealing like a bell on “Dublin Blues” and falling like a misty rain over “The Randall Knife”—that the music assumes a different character. And while Clark was a capable singer, his vocal instrument lacked the luster of Earle’s, which adds a new shine to the lyrics.

The Guy album is coming out now, because Earle wants to delay his next album of original songs to 2020. That’s when his next theatrical project will open in the songwriter’s current home of New York City. The Public Theatre in Manhattan commissioned Earle, Jessica Blank and Eric Denson to create a stage play based on April 5, 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia.

Twenty-nine of the 31 miners on the afternoon shift that day died in a coal dust explosion, and an independent investigation found Massey Energy, owned by right-wing figure Don Blankenship, directly responsible. “That asshole knew the mine was dangerous,” Earle claims, “but he hired people anyway and killed them.”

In 2002, Blank and Denson had created The Exonerated, a theatrical oral history based on interviews with more than 40 death-row inmates found innocent when new evidence was unearthed. They’re applying the same approach to the families and co-workers of the mine-disaster victims, and Earle sat in on the interviews to get ideas for songs. When this new, as-yet-unnamed show opens next year, Earle will release an album of songs inspired by that research and related political songs. As his most political album since 2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, it will deliver Earle’s long-awaited response to the Trump Era.

“This time I’m going after hearts and minds in the heartland of America,” Earle says, “rather than preaching to the choir. I’ve preached to the choir, and I’m glad I have, but now it’s time to talk to someone other than the NPR crowd on the two coasts who are my audience. It’s time to talk to people who may have voted for Trump but might not again. If I go in and play music I care about in a way that they may care about, it might work.

“Most of them are people who are scared. They look around in their communities and the people who have money are the coal miners. But only one out of every thousand people has that job, and those that have the jobs still get black lung and die in disasters like Upper Big Branch. The whole shift died in that disaster; it was only 29 people, but that shift used to be 200, which tells you why there’s so much unemployment in coal country. It’s not outsourcing or environmental laws that’s killing coal jobs; it’s automation. People don’t understand why those jobs are disappearing and why they aren’t coming back.”

In the meantime, Earle will be out on the road, playing his favorite Guy Clark songs with the Dukes. And he will find himself in the mentor role that Clark once occupied in Earle’s life. Earle, now 64 and sporting a salt-and-pepper rabbinical beard, touts the talents of young Canadian troubadour Colter Wall and Logan Ledger, a T-Bone Burnett discovery who’s been co-writing songs with Earle. Now the elder statesman, Earle emphasizes the importance of treating songwriting as an art form.

“Songwriting doesn’t have to be art with a capital A,” Earle allows, “and those songs can make the world a better place. Robert Johnson wrote every song that Chicago blues is based on, but he was a pop artist as far as he knew. Cole Porter was a literary guy who felt he was slumming as a songwriter. But Bob Dylan knew he was an artist; he knew he was making art. That was the difference. He invented our jobs.

“The distinction is not important unless you want to write songs that are great art. You learn to move on from something that’s merely clever. It has to be sincere. The main thing about art is you have to mean it; you have to give a fuck. Without Bob Dylan, rock ’n’ roll is about cars and girls; I really believe that. We’re all post-Bob Dylan songwriters.”

On Guy, fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and her husband/guitarist Chris Masterson (co-leaders of the Mastersons when they’re not being Dukes) play the cowboy-campfire intro to “Desperados Waiting on a Train.” Clark wrote the song about his grandmother’s boyfriend Jack Prigg, an old oilfield roustabout who showed a young boy how to drive, how to play dominos, how to flirt and how to sing “Red River Valley.”

The boy and old man would imagine themselves as outlaws hiding on a bluff, ready to ambush an unsuspecting string of railroad cars. When Earle today sings, “Our lives were like some old Western movie, like desperados waiting for a train,” it’s as if it’s 1974 again. He’s the young sidekick, Clark’s the old cowboy, Nashville’s Elliston Place is a Texas hilltop, and the future is a train that these two desperados might highjack.

Earle’s tour for Guy got kick-started with a show at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion during South by Southwest week in nearby Austin. Amid the hilltop sets from Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger movie, Earle devoted the bulk of his set to the Guy album, before finishing off with high-octane versions of “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.” Wearing a tan cowboy hat and a long, gray-streaked beard, Earle sang his mentor’s songs affectionately yet with irreverent spirit. And he told some great stories.

“The last time I saw Guy,” he said after singing “L.A. Freeway,” “he was getting over chemo and someone smuggled some barbecue into his room. I was running late, and by the time I got there, all the barbecue was gone, and his eyes were shut. Just as I was walking out the door, he said, ‘Steven.’ He’s the only one who called me that—so don’t even think about it. I said, ‘Guy, how was the barbecue?’ And he said, “Pork,” as if disgusted. Because after 40-some years of living in Tennessee, he still couldn’t accept pork as barbecue. So that was the last word I heard from my greatest teacher: “Pork.”

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