THROUGHOUT THE 1980s Steve Earle was the poster boy of the Outlaw Country Music scene. Taking inspiration from Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings his music had a harder edge than the pop-oriented Nashville sound of the time.
Earle’s first two albums - Guitar Town (1986 ) and Copperhead Road (1988 ) - contained a potent mix of country, bluegrass, heavy metal, and punk. The title track to the latter became a hit but Steve remained in the margins of the music industry.
In the early 1990s he was further marginalised when his problems with alcohol and substance abuse came to the fore and he was sent to jail for drug and firearm offences. Upon his release from prison in 1994 he was clean and sober and immediately set about reclaiming his throne as Nashville’s outlaw poet prince.
Around this time he also became interested in Irish trad and spent a number of winters in Galway. It was a hugely creative time as he wrote hit songs such as ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘Forth Worth Blues’.
Next month Steve Earle returns to Galway for two shows at the Black Box Theatre on Monday November 9 and Tuesday 10 at 8pm. He will also play the TF Royal Theatre in Castlebar on Saturday November 14 at 8.30pm. At these shows he will play songs from his most recent album Townes.
Townes, Elvis, and Springsteen
Earle was raised in Shertz, near San Antonio, Texas. From an early age he showed a prodigious talent for music. His rebellious streak was also evident and by his early teens he moved to Houston to learn about songwriting and to break into the music business.
As the then 17-year-old Earle took to the stage at The Old Quarter in Houston, he was faced with one of his heroes Townes Van Zandt staring up at him from the front row. Throughout Earle’s performance that evening in 1972 Van Zandt playfully heckled him.
“I’d been in the same room as him several times before that but I’d never really introduced myself,” Earle tells me. “That night in the Old Quarter though he kind of was the front row because there was six people in the place and he was one of them. So it was kind of hard to ignore him! In his defence though he didn’t make any sound or noise when I was playing and was very respectful of my singing. Once I finished playing he very loudly and persistently asked that I play ‘Wabash Canonball’ and he wasn’t going to take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Earle eventually silenced him by playing a stunning version of Townes’ own ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’. After the show Earle and Van Zandt became friends.
Van Zandt became a musical mentor to Earle and convinced him to move to Nashville to further his career. He did so in 1973 and befriended Guy Clark who became Earle’s bass player. Through Clark’s intervention Earle secured a job as a staff writer for the music publishing company Sunbury Dunbar. At one point Elvis Presley almost recorded one of Earle’s songs.
“I’d heard what was basically a rumour that his management had taken one of my songs and he had come to Nashville to record it,” Earle says. “There was a lot of secrecy surrounding his visit but we all knew that he was staying in this one hotel right on Music Row. That was in 1975 and he died two years later.
“In 1986 when I was making my first solo record Tony Brown [Elvis’ piano player] was one of the producers and it was from him I learned the heart-breaking truth. The band had learned my song and it was first up on the session but for some reason Presley never showed up. He flew back to the Memphis the next day and never recorded in Nashville again. He never came to the studio and it cost me an awful lot of money. It was a weird situation to be in and I was actually kind of pissed off at him for years after he died.”
Although Earle did miss out on The King recording one of his songs it was only a short time before he achieved success in his own right. His debut album Guitar Town went straight into the Billboard County Album Charts and produced four Top 30 singles. Earle’s live performances became the stuff of legend and there were many early comparisons with Bruce Springsteen.
“He was the prominent songwriter at the time I was making records and he was the major live performer in America,” says Earle. “I learned a lot from watching him perform and I wrote the whole of the Guitar Town album after seeing the Born In The USA tour. I’d kind of lost my way as a staff writer in Nashville but when I saw Springsteen it all made sense to me. The fact that I was compared to Springsteen is completely and entirely my fault.”
In 1988 Copperhead Road was to prove to be the high point in Earle’s career and the storytelling style of the delivery cloaked hard-hitting subjects such as war and poverty.
“That’s a thing a lot of people missed,” Earle says. “They talk about how political my music has been the last 10 years but Copperhead Road is a very, very, political record. I’m not a political songwriter in the traditional sense but I’m also not a songwriter who shies away from politics where it affects the lives of ordinary people.”
One of the album’s songs, ‘Johnny Come Lately’ compares the experiences of a US serviceman in London during WWII with those of a Vietnam War veteran. The song was recorded with The Pogues.
“Those guys were the first ones who introduced me to Irish music and I learned it directly from Terry Woods,” Earle says. “There are a lot of trad musicians in Ireland who say that The Pogues don’t know the first f**king thing about Irish music but the fact is that a lot of them are working because of The Pogues.”
The journey that Earle took into discovering Irish trad eventually saw him coming to Galway. The area is also significant to him due to the fact that his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt played his last ever concert here in 1996 in the Róisín Dubh.
“I came to Galway every winter through the mid part of the 1990s,” Earle says. “The first winter was in 1997 right after Townes had died. I’d been touring Europe for two months and the last show was in Galway. I sort of discovered that Townes had played that show in Róisín Dubh near the very end. I wrote ‘Forth Worth Blues’ in Galway and that was my actual dealing with Townes death for the first time.”
The other song Earle is famed for having written during his time here is ‘Galway Girl’. In recent years it has become an Irish anthem and is played at almost every wedding, christening, and funeral “Ha, ha, ha,” laughs Earle. “It sure is played a lot.”
For tickets to the Galway show contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777. For Castlebar contact Royal Theatre through www.royaltheatre.ie, 0818 300 000, www.ticketmaster.ie, or Ticketmaster outlets nationwide.