Earle’s career has crossed the musical genres and generations and it’s taken as many twists and turns as his personal life. “There are people who believe I could have done better, sold alot more records if I’d been willing to concentrate on doing one thing. But I’m a song writer, I’m a song writer and I’m a folk singer. I sort of came up in coffee houses and I came up around, you know, a tradition where…. well tradition is important to me and history is important to me, figuring out where music comes from. That’s what always connected me to Ireland for instance because what I did anyway, it turned out came from Scotland and Ireland and I’ve always done well in those places. You know my body is kind of tuned in fifths rather than thirds you know. I like melodies where one note never changes through the whole thing. (laughs). A lot, so.”
His latest album Townes pays tribute to friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt. What does Earle think his friend would make of the album? “Ooh that’s a tough one, I think he’d probably like it, but he’d probably tell everybody but me (laughs). He’d have a hard time with it because he had a hard time with stuff. I mean he knew how good he was but he had a hard time believing that he deserved to realise anything material from it. He was always pretty conflicted about success in any way, shape or form and the record’s been pretty successful so he’d tend to distance himself from things like that (laughs). I had to choose songs that I felt a special connection to, I couldn’t do everything. I had 28 songs the night before I started and I recorded 15 of them. I didn’t know I was finished until I was finished. I don’t know what else to tell you besides that. If I needed you and No Place to Fall are kind of the same song, they say kind of the same thing. Guy Clarke got me off the hook there because he recorded If I needed you and I’ve been deferring to Guy Clarke since I was a teenager”.
Following his release from jail, Earle rapidly turned himself around both personally and professionally. He threw himself into music and wrote two albums in as many years. “All I had to do was stop. Stop being really, really high all the time and get to where my energy didn’t go to trying to find five or six hundred dollars worth of dope every day. If you don’t have to find $500 worth of dope before you can do anything, it seems like you have all the time an energy in the world, you know! I didn’t write anything for 4 and a half years. The last four and a half years I was using, I wrote nothing. And then in treatment, you know I was in jail and I paroled out of jail to a treatment centre and I didn’t have a guitar in jail, that’s just in the movies! In the treatment centre I was allowed a guitar for an hour a day and the first thing I wrote was Goodbye. Once I stopped abusing my head and my heart, the two tools that I use to do what I do for a living, then I started writing, ‘coz that’s what I was put here to do! It’s like the story of the guy who goes to the doctor and he raises he arm in this weird position and says ‘doc, it hurts when I do this’ and the doc says ‘don’t do that’ (laughs).
Earle has worked with musicians from The Pogues to Johnny Cash and The Rolling Stones. He has written songs for Patty Loveless and Johnny Lee and his own songs have been covered by many, most notably in Ireland in recent years with the cover of his song Galway Girl by Sharon Shannon who he commends as one of the best artists he’s ever worked with. Another artist Earle speaks highly of is Terry Woods “He was the connection between Ireland and Camden that made The Pogues actually work and I think made them important and made them last. I’ve been really lucky, look if you’re me or anyone close to me, the fact that Johnny Cash even knew who I was, was a very big deal so that’s way up there too. It’s just one those things and I’ve been really really lucky”. Earle humbly passes over Galway Girl to Sharon and although he speaks with great admiration for the Irish musician, Earle, as a recovering alcoholic, never wanted his song to be used in an advertisement for alcohol. “We recorded it with the agreement being that I could use it on my record and she could use it on her’s, it was her band you know, we did it in Dublin. It’s a huge thing for me. You know just for the record I haven’t had a drink in fifteen years and when I did cider never passed my lips. But it was one of those things, I normally don’t allow my music to be used in ads for drink but it was a lot of money for Sharon so I didn’t stand in the way of it. I could have stopped it but I didn’t, ‘coz it was her. The peak of the whole thing was that we were asked to sing it at the All-Ireland final, it was the year that Galway played the draw with Kerry and then finally lost in the play-off. I couldn’t make it and you know I’m still pissed off about that!”. But Earle doesn’t claim The Galways Girl as his most note worthy achievement in Ireland. “I think the Galway Girl is gonna be a song that’s going to be sung in Ireland for a long time and I think that Mundy is as much or more responsible for that as anybody. My claim to fame, in Ireland especially, has nothing to do with The Galway Girl, my claim to fame is at Mill Street in West Cork in like, I dunno, 1997 or 98 or something like that I followed Christy Moore and I lived to tell the tale! That’s my claim to fame in Ireland.”
He has spent a lot of time living in Ireland and with his wonderfully dry wit and love of Irish (more specifically Galway) girls he could proclaim honorary Irish status. “Earle is an Ulster name, I come from, well on my dad’s side what we refer to in The States as Scots-Irish which doesn’t really exist and my mother’s side of the family is very Irish and very Catholic. My great-grandmother’s name was Collins for fuck sake! I have all that American ‘Wanting to be Irish worse than anything else in the world’ thing. And you know the thing is, trust me, there’s a syndrome that has to do with, you know, the Irish behaving frighteningly like American’s in the last 2 years or so. My first landlord in Galway, I had a cottage in Barna because I thought I wanted to be out there but as it turned out I went nuts and the next time I came I got a place right in the city and I was much happier there. I just never got into driving on that side of the road! I felt a little isolated there. But my landlord was called McDonagh and I thought it was the people who had the chip shop in town but turned out it was logger from Chicago! It was ’97 by that time and things were starting to change”.
Extending beyond his musical interests, Earle is not just vocal about his beliefs but active about them. He speaks out against the death penalty and famously exchanged letters with Jonathan Wayne Nobles, a convicted murderer, for many years. But he only managed to meet him a month before his execution. “Yeah because he asked me to witness his execution and I just felt, well, I didn’t want the first time I saw him to be strapped to a gurney, so I started going every chance I got. I’d go to Texas and visit with him for several hours a day for a couple or three days at a time…and then well… it wasn’t any fun, it was really hard. It’s a huge part of who I am to this day. You know, having stood, you know… like.. 12 or 14 feet from a man while the state of Texas killed him. Just sitting there watching the light go out. I don’t recommend it, but I was asked to do it and I didn’t know how to say no to what was basically a last request from a dying man. And he wasn’t innocent, he was guilty of a heinous crime. For some reason innocent guys don’t write me, I don’t know what that is!”
Steve Earle has just completed a tour of Ireland and is currently touring North America promoting his latest album Townes.