Steve Earle has played East Tennessee plenty over the years, but the last time he did a gig at the venue to which he’ll return on Friday was 37 years ago.
“I did one gig there, during the (1982) World’s Fair,” Earle told The Daily Times recently. “That was a three-piece rockabilly band I had at the time.”
At the time, few folks had any idea that the snarling 27-year-old would go on to become one of the loudest and most undeniable voices in Americana. It would be another four years, in fact, before his breakthrough record, “Guitar Town,” put him on the map, and another seven until his signature hit, “Copperhead Road,” became a standard of his setlists that he now plays with a tongue-in-cheek intro. (The last time he performed at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville in 2017, he drolly told enthusiastic fans who hollered for it to relax, because he’d get to it “in time for you to get home before your ankle monitors go off.”)
If it seems he plays it somewhat begrudgingly on occasion, perhaps that’s because Earle went through a fiery crash-and-burn battle with drugs in the 1990s and came out the other side renewed, reinvigorated and slinging songs that make “Copperhead Road,” as good as it is, pale by comparison. Since finding recovery in the mid-1990s, he’s released 13 albums, including his most recent earlier this year, simply titled “Guy.” It’s a homage to his mentor, the late singer-songwriter Guy Clark, a fellow Texas native who took Earle under his wing when the latter arrived in Nashville in the early 1970s.
Of Earle’s two heroes, Clark ranks right up there with the late Townes Van Zandt, another hardcore troubadour who had a profound impact on Earle. A decade ago, Earle released “Townes,” in which he reinterpreted many of Van Zandt’s songs, and after Clark passed in 2016, Earle knew he owed him the same tip of the hat, he said.
“I did the Townes record several years after he passed away, but once I made it, though, I knew I was obligated to make the Guy record,” he said. “That was always a given. I didn’t want to run into him on the other side having made the Townes record and not made his. So when he passed away, I started looking at when I should do that. I had a record I was working on that I wanted to release a little better later — for different reasons, but during the next election cycle — so making it happen sooner was good for me.”
The challenge, of course, was deciding which of Clark’s songs to cut. As one of the most revered songwriting deities in the Americana pantheon, Clark penned dozens of classics over the years, going back to his 1975 release, “Old No. 1,” on which a 19-year-old Earle performed and sang. That was as good a starting point as any when it came to assembling the bones of “Guy,” Earle said.
“I knew I was going to get asked, ‘Why didn’t you record this? Why didn’t you record that?’ But I finally had to surrender to the fact that it’s my Guy Clark record,” he said. “I wanted to record mostly the songs I was directly connected to, which tends to be the older songs from when I spent several years in Nashville as part of his band. Some I felt needed to be on there, the ones I connected to later, and I just finally decided it had to be the stuff that meant the most to me personally.”
To capture Clark’s spirit, Earle enlisted some help. Songwriter Shawn Camp, who collaborated frequently with Clark, was brought in “as a ringer,” Earle said — “he knew where the bodies were buried” — and Mike Bub, who held down the bass for several years with the Del McCoury Band, was brought in to help out on the song “Sis Draper.”
“That song doesn’t have a lot of chords, but where they come is not arbitrary,” Earle said. “It’s not the usual math applied to rock ’n’ roll. Bluegrass is always (messing) with me, because it’s closer to bebop than anything else. It was the last day when we were recording ‘Sis,’ and we wanted to get it done. I played mandolin, and we needed somebody with a smooth touch to be the other guitar player, so Shawn suggested we call Mike.”
Many of the songs are faithful renditions of selections from Clark’s catalog, and Earle’s rough-hewn timbre reveals previously undiscovered nuances to Clark’s brilliance on songs like “The Randall Knife.” Others, however, get a decidedly lively reinvention, like “Out in the Parking Lot,” recorded as a country-rocker that rides on some gorgeous-sounding pedal steel. Earle chuckles when he imagines what Clark himself might have thought of it.
“It might have pissed him off,” Earle said. “He was never a fan of my band, I don’t think. He could never make sense with electric bands. His records became great records when he surrendered to bluegrass rules, starting with ‘Dublin Blues.’ It’s odd that Guy and I were as close as we were, as much as I talk and as little as he did. He didn’t volunteer a whole lot, and I had to find some way to get my head around (that song). I felt like it needed to be there, because it was really the biggest hit Guy had, and I wanted to include it.”
Ultimately, however, what Clark might have thought matters little — it is, after all, Earle’s record. Clark was, and Earle is, too taciturn to traffic in maudlin sentimentality, and while recording Clark’s songs stirred emotions, he doesn’t pretend to feel the lingering spirit of his mentor every time he performs them, as he’ll do Friday with his band, The Dukes, for the “Music Feeds” concert series, sponsored by Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee.
“Guy would immediately dismiss that,” Earle said. “Guy was a hippie, but he was almost pragmatic to the point of being kind of irritating sometimes. I remember him and Mickey Newbury (another Nashville songwriter of some renown) having a conversation one time, and Newbury said he felt like his songs were being transmitted from outer space or something like that, like they were things he couldn’t be responsible for writing. Guy just said, ‘Man, get a grip.’ When it came to writing a song, if you asked him a question, you got a direct answer.”
It’s a trait that Earle shares — in all areas of life. In the past, he’s declared himself to be a Marxist, and his political songs are incendiary ones, but the record he’s planning to release in 2020, while political in nature, takes a different approach than some longtime fans might think.
“I don’t think us being in this (national) emergency right now is strictly because people that voted for Donald Trump are racist or stupid,” he said. “There are plenty of racists that voted for Donald Trump, and he’s made it clear that he does not want to lose their vote, but he won because of so many leftists who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, and the people who voted for Barack Obama, but their lives didn’t get any better.”
Titled “Ghosts of West Virginia,” it’s built off six songs he wrote for a play called “Coal Country,” he said, about the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in Raleigh County, West Virginia, that took place in 2010. The play, in which Earle plays the part of a transitional troubadour, will debut at New York’s Anspacher Theater next February, and Earle will head to the studio after the completion of his current tour to round out the record, which casts a gaze at the hard conditions that lead to hard lives for folks living in what’s considered the bedrock of Trump country.
“It’s giving those people a voice and speaking about them,” he said. “It’s a much more subtle exercise, and I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but I’m going to record it.”