Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle

Steve Earle on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

At Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall last week, Steve Earle opened with the Woody Guthrie-styled title song from his excellent new album The Low Highway.  Later in the concert, Steve talked about the song’s genesis: travelling across his country and seeing everywhere the signs of economic failure, just as Woody did in the Great Depression: ‘I’m writing on the road, and the song is about what I was seeing out of my window as I travelled around North America last year. And the world too, because times are hard all over – we could see that just travelling from here from Manchester.’

‘The Low Highway’ is a song that observes today’s empty factories, unemployment lines and people ‘lining up for something to eat’.

Saw empty houses on a dead end street
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories

‘None of us remember the Depression first-hand. I realized that what I was seeing, not riding a boxcar but through the window of a three-quarter-of-a-million dollar bus, is a situation very similar to what Woody saw. Times really are that hard out there’.

Steve Earle sings with compassion and – like Rebecca Solnit in her essays – speaks of hope for the voiceless in the ‘bones of a better day’:

Wheels turnin’ round on the asphalt sayin’
Every sound is a prophecy

More than anyone (with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen) it is Steve Earle who has carried the torch lit by Woody Guthrie into a new century (Bob Dylan having demurred the role), keeping alive the flickering embers of social conscience.  He’s quite explicit about this, singing in ‘Christmas In Washington’ (sadly omitted from his Liverpool concert) of the debt owed to Guthrie and other Americans who took a stand for freedom and justice:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve articulates his mission in these words: ‘There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb’.  It’s more than 50 years since he stuck out his thumb – aged 14 and running away from home to follow his idol Townes Van Zandt around Texas. By the age of 19 he was in Nashville, working blue-collar jobs by day and playing music at night. During this apprenticeship he began to write songs and played bass guitar in Guy Clark’s band and on Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1. It was around that time that Steve appeared in the wonderful film Heartworn Highways, a documentary on the Nashville music scene which included Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Earle ever since hearing the opening notes of Guitar Town back in the mid-1980s. That album – a perfect encapsulation of the frustrated hopes of small town life – sounds as good today as it ever did, with tracks such as ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ (both revisited at the Phil), ‘Someday’ and ‘Fearless Heart’ that remain great anthems of the dream of escape: ‘Someday I’ll put her on that interstate and never look back’.

Earle’s big break into mainstream radio play came with his swaggering, hard-rocking 1988 album Copperhead Road. But that success intensified a downward spiral of addiction to booze, cocaine and heroin that only ended a decade later, after he had come close to losing his life to drugs and spent a year in prison.

Yet Earle survived to turn his recovery and return to recording into a parable of redemption that has clearly been as much an inspiration to the man himself as for those who listen to his music.  In interviews he sometimes seems a little surprised to still be with us: ‘If I thought I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself’, he remarked recently. But it’s the way that his experience on the edge has infused his writing that is significant.

From the start his songs had displayed an empathy with the small-town losers and ordinary guys who populated them, but since his return Earle’s commitment to empathise with those whom society would rather marginalise or condemn has intensified. In songs about the homeless, murderers on death row or – most controversially – about the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh – he seeks empathy not retribution, understanding before judgement.   It’s as if his own struggles, the prison time and successful rehabilitation have urged him to place the possibility of redemption at the heart of his artistic and social vision. His songs are truly redemption songs: subtle, eloquent and empathetic.

As Joanna Colangelo wrote on the Huffington Post earlier this year:

It’s well-known that Steve’s hard-drug living days, a year in prison and decades of life on the road have led him into the shadows of the country – nooks of darkness and shame, which can too often be swept under a patriotic rug. Yet, it’s his poetic embrace of the beauty and dignity in these nooks that makes Steve Earle the most important highway philosopher of American culture today. His songs are reminders of the complexities and contradictions that exist in a country as massive as ours, and his albums are a dose of humanity, often times when it’s most needed.

At the Phil, Steve sang ‘Invisible’ off the new album, a song in which he gives voice to the homeless guy living on the street, invisible to passers-by:

Everywhere I go
People pass me by
They never know ’cause I’m
A shadow hangin’ low
A footstep just behind
They carry on but I’m

Songs from the new album, The Low Highway, some of them inspired by Earle’s observations of people enduring hard times, others by time spent in New Orleans as a performer on David Simon’s post-Katrina saga Treme, made up a large slice of his set at the Phil.  On stage for well over two hours, and including assorted gems from his back catalogue, Earle made plain his respect for the latest incarnation of his band The Dukes: ‘the best band I have ever played with’.

True, too: this is a bunch of fine musicians, lending sympathetic support to songs from all stages of Steve’s career, from pounding rock to sensitive bluegrass or country melodies.  The Dukes now consist of original members Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass) joined by Chris Masterson (lead guitar and pedal steel) and Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, piano and harmony vocals).  The latter two musicians also comprise The Mastersons, who opened the night as support performing a handful of songs from their album Bird Fly South.

Mastersons and Steve Earle

Steve Earle and The Mastersons on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Earle himself played an impressive variety of instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and even keyboards on one song. Eleanor Whitmore is an extremely versatile musician; she turned her hand at different times to guitar, mandolin and keyboards, but most especially plays terrific fiddle, as exciting as that played by Lucia Micarelli, Steve’s busking partner in Treme. Whitmore also accompanied Earle on most songs, while Kelly Looney on acoustic and electric bass and Will Rigby on the drums provided a forthright yet varied pulse.

Since making his comeback Earle has been busy in many departments: as well as recording a string of critically-acclaimed albums, he has been actively involved in political campaigns, most notably in opposition to the death penalty.  He has published a collection of short stories and, last year, his first novel.  Alongside all this, he has appeared in two David Simon TV series: in The Wire Earle played a recovering addict, while in the first two seasons of Treme he played street musician Harley Watt.

Naturally, with Treme being so concerned with music, Earle contributed songs to the show, and several of these appear on The Low Highway and were featured at the Phil.  There were the two songs, co-written with Lucia Micarelli – ‘That All You Got?’ and ‘After Mardis Gras’, as well as the classic post-Katrina anthem ‘This City’:

This city won’t ever die
Just as long as our heart be strong
Like a second line stepping high
Raising hell as we roll along

Here, Steve talks about writing the song and performs it live in the studio:

While this is the band’s performance in Eindhoven last month:

Another New Orleans-inspired song from Treme is the languid ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ which featured great fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.  This was the song performed in Glasgow two nights later:

Then there was that remarkable moment when Steve sat down at the keyboards.  As he explained: ‘hang out in New Orleans long enough and you start believing you should be able to play piano’.  This was by way of introduction to the bar room boogie of ‘Pocket Full of Rain’

Alongside the new songs, old favourites were dusted down: ‘Guitar Town’ rocked like it was still the 1980s with Chris Masterson providing that twangy Duane Eddy riff:

Hey pretty baby are you ready for me
It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee
I’m just out of Austin bound for San Antone
With the radio blastin’ and the bird dog on

By way of contrast, ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ also from the debut album, began with Earle performing solo. It’s a simple song that still retains its power to move.  The pounding rock of ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Taneytown’ contrasted with the bluegrass fiddle sound of songs like ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ and ‘The Galway Girl’, reflecting the engaging blend of genre influences that have defined Steve Earle’s albums.

Steve’s introduction to ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ was interesting: he spoke of his admiration for San Francisco’s Warren Hellman – the only banker he has ever hung out with.  Hellman earned his praise for financing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held at The Golden Gate Park each year.  When Hellman died in 2011 he left sufficient funds for the festival to continue for a while. Earle’s song is a celebration of a wealthy man who didn’t lose contact with the ground he walked on or the society he lived in.

Steve Earle

Steve introduced ‘Nothin’ But You’ as ‘Bob Dylan’s favourite Steve Earle song’. I was pleased that Steve included a couple of songs -‘Ben McCulloch’ and ‘Mystery Train’- from Train a Comin’, the album he recorded in 1994 for a tiny independent label after he had served prison time and was was clean and sober for the first time in many years.  It’s a great record with a relaxed acoustic session feel, featuring some renowned acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr. The mood is akin to the informal gatherings captured in Heartworn Highways.  There’s a great cover version of McCartney’s bitter ‘I’m Looking Through You’ that must have had a special meaning for Steve at the time.

Easily the most moving song on the new album, and one of the most personal songs that Steve has written, is ‘Remember Me’.  It would be difficult, I think, for any parent to hear it through with dry eyes.  As he explained when he introduced the song at the Phil, he wrote it for his three year old son, John Henry, who was born when Steve was 55. ‘I’m 58 years old; my son is four.  That has to be a definition of optimism’, he said.  He went on to explain that John Henry has been diagnosed as autistic: in Earle’s view, ‘This is  a worldwide epidemic. And it’s obviously something environmental. It’s one in 50 kids. Think about it: that’s far bigger than influenza; far bigger than Aids, polio . . . bigger than any epidemic we’ve ever faced. It could be pesticides they spray on crops. It could be genetically modified food. It’s universal. This is about the future of the human race’.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this, and did a bit of online research later.  Experts seem divided on the extent to which autism is primarily caused by genetic or environmental factors. For example, a page, Causes of autism and Asperger syndrome, on the NHS Choices website states:

New fathers who are older than 40 are estimated to be six times more likely to father a child with an ASD than fathers under 40. This is possibly because a man’s genetic material is more at risk of developing mutations as he gets older.  Researchers are currently studying the possibility that air pollution and pesticides may cause ASDs, under what is known as the CHARGE study. However, it will probably be several years before there is definitive information on environmental factors.

In the meantime, Earle is dedicating himself to ensuring the best care for his son:  ‘John Henry, I think, is gonna be okay – but he’s got resources’.  He performs benefits to support The Brown Centre for Autism and their work with early intervention for children with autism.  And he’s writing his memoirs with the aim of devoting the proceeds of publication to his son’s support.

So, Steve Earle continues to carry the Woody Guthrie mantle.  While the set at the Phil mainly featured the political songs off the new album, such as ‘The Low Highway’, ‘Invisible’ and ‘Burnin’ It Down‘, brought back for a third encore, the band blasted us with ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’, the incendiary title track of Steve’s 2004 album, a collection of songs influenced by the Iraq war and the policies of the George W. Bush administration that won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

The Revolution Starts…Now was one of a sequence of blistering and predominantly political albums released in the decade after 9/11.  Two years earlier he had released Jerusalem, his most explicitly political album with songs that took on the war on terror, capital punishment, poverty and the growing gulf between rich and poor.  The most controversial song was ‘John Walker’s Blues’ which, while by no means endorsing of Lindh’s actions, attempted to understand how an American boy could find a personal truth in Islam and take up arms thousands of miles from home.  It was an album packed with angry yet thoughtful lyrics presented in musical settings as loud and abrasive as anything from Tom Morello and Rage Against The Machine.

Steve and the band were brought back for three encores. They began with a Beatles cover (they were in Liverpool after all); less predictably, Steve chose ‘Cry Baby Cry’ off the White Album.  Then came ‘Continental Trailways Blues’, one of Steve’s great American road songs.Returning for the third and final encore, the band blasted into ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’ (would that it were that simple!) which ended with Steve raising a clenched fist before kneeling to fiddle with knobs and trigger an endless Hendrix-like chord on his guitar which continued to resound as he left the stage.

Steve Earle fist

The Revolution Starts…Now’ (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now

Steve Earle encore

Steve Earle doing a Hendrix thing. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Leaving the auditorium, the PA played us out with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Here’s Steve Earle singing it:

Set list

The Low Highway
21st Century Blues
Calico County
Hard Core Troubadour
I Thought You Should Know
That All You Got?
Love’s Gonna Blow My Way
After Mardi Gras
Pocket Full Of Rain
This City
You’re Still Standin’ There
Burnin’ It Down
Guitar Town
Copperhead Road
Warren Hellman’s Banjo
Little Emperor
Dominick Street/The Galway Girl
Mystery Train Part 2
Remember Me
My Old Friend The Blues
Ben McCulloch
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
Down The Road
Cry Baby Cry
Nothin’ But You
Continental Trailways Blues
The Revolution Starts… Now

See also