Steve Earle on Jerry Jeff Walker, country music, Nashville
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
“I’m deaf in one ear and can’t hear the other,” Steve Earle laughs as he asks me to repeat a question. “I don’t see how I’m still in the music business.”
Even longtime fans are likely amazed at the longevity of the 67-year-old, Grammy-winning outlaw country legend.
Many of his current stories involve his mentor, lifelong friend and subject of Earle’s latest tribute album, the late singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker. According to Earle, Jerry Jeff (outside May 27 on New West Records) is the latest cover album in a series that includes his fellow mentors, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and last year’s tribute to his late son, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle. jerry jef also stands out as one of his most immediate and enjoyable LPs. It is particularly welcoming to newcomers to Walker and Earle, even though it marks the end of an era. “I hope I don’t have to do any more tribute records,” says Earle, who is currently working on a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1983 film. tender mercies. “Justin’s happened, and it was the only thing I could do. I’m ready to make a record of my own songs again.
Tell me a bit more about your relationship with Jerry Jeff Walker.
I knew who Jerry Jeff Walker was long before I knew who Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were, and that was because my high school biology teacher wanted me to do “Mr. Bojangles” in a school production.. I knew these records before Jerry Jeff came to Texas to live and wear a cowboy hat. I wanted to be Jerry Jeff Walker more than anything for several years.
The songs you picked for Jerry Jeff sound like a nice split between Walker’s early days in Greenwich Village folk and “Mr. Bojangles”, and Viva Terlingua and the outlaw country of Texas he later made.
I used to play most of both [1972’s] jerry jeff walker and [1973’s] Viva Terlingua when I only had a few songs to myself when I played in bars. Just when I was old enough to play in a bar, I was playing “Charlie Dunn”. My group [the Dukes] grew up listening to that stuff too.
I was sad you didn’t include”Pissing in the wind” on the file.
I don’t want to get into a review. But I think that’s why I put the songs on the record that I did because I don’t want people to think that Jerry Jeff Walker is talking about “Pissin’ in the Wind.”
“Mr. Bojangles” is the only Jerry Jeff Walker song that most people will probably have heard of. How did you approach covering such a well-known and often-covered song?
I think we did a good job. I mean, I did it with the Opry Band a few weeks ago. It’s kinda hard to screw up. I looked up halfway and all the cell phones on the balcony were on and by the time I was done the downstairs was also lit up. It’s just that kind of song.
What did you learn about songwriting from recording those Walker songs that you didn’t learn from Van Zandt or Clark?
Guy’s stuff is the stuff I teach the most. I know how he wrote because he told me, he showed me and he taught me how he did what he did. Townes would give me a book – give me a copy of Bury my heart at Wounded Knee – and tell me to go read it. Walker was our link to Greenwich Village.
I just got lucky. I had good teachers. But I used it on purpose. I am not shy. I followed these guys everywhere. [Laughs] I was a pain in the ass, there’s no doubt about it. But they were generous too, these three guys. Townes was probably tougher on me than anyone else because he was pretty tough on everyone. Jerry Jeff might be, but he’s always been pretty nice to me.
I need to know about the time you were Walker’s driver and he asked you to play for Neil Young.
When I was in Nashville, Jerry Jeff would come in from time to time to record something. He had reached a point where he could no longer afford to be arrested in Nashville. So he would come and ask me to drive for him, which maybe wasn’t smart. But I didn’t have as many strokes on my license.
One night he came to pick me up. He said, “Hey, I want you to come down and play a song for Neil.” And I said, Ok, whatever, it’s Jerry Jeff Walker. I got in the car. And I didn’t know who Neil was until we got to Spence Manor. It turned out to be Neil Young.
Walker didn’t want me to play any of my songs. He wanted me to play a David Olney song called “Illegal Cargo”. Because he knew that I knew because I defend other people’s songs too. It hurt me a bit, but I played it. And I met Neil Young, so.
How did Neil respond?
He liked “Illegal Cargo” and I think I played some stuff later. But what stuck with me was that I was raised there to play a David Olney song. When I saw David, I said, “Fuck you.” But I also told him that I had played the song and that Neil liked it.
In Kelefa Sanneh’s recent book Major labels, you are considered the example of a country singer-songwriter who found success without country radio. Do you ever tune into country radio today, even out of curiosity?
No. I didn’t listen to it unless I had to. I grew up in a place with good rock ‘n’ roll and good country music. I never liked the dividers between different types of music in the first place. I always thought they were in the way.
I was doing a country record on purpose when I did guitar town. Before that, I just took money under false pretenses. We all were. We wanted to be singer-songwriters. We weren’t really interested in the genre. We were interested in making great albums of our own music. But people were paying us to be songwriters. Bob Beckham knew you had to let Kris Kristofferson write the demo “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” if you wanted to get “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. There are a few people like that.
I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to tell you that what’s happening on country radio right now isn’t country, because it’s not true. It’s country because that’s what happens on country radio. There’s a lot of people making records in Nashville who really blame me for what they do. Some people complain that I’m the reason the battery is too strong. I was the first to do this. Someone asked me about country music, and I said, from what I can tell, it’s hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people. I didn’t mean that in a derogatory way at all. I just wanted to say that it happened the same way.
You have a son on the autism spectrum. I’m on the spectrum tooand i know you do annual benefit show for the Keswell School in New York. How do you manage to speak out and advocate for autism in the music industry?
It’s delicate. In this world I live in, our mantra is: you know an autistic person, you know an autistic person. Everything is different.
I was asked the same question regarding political music. I am not a political songwriter. I write more songs about girls than I do anything else. I just grew up in a time when you write about anything that affects your life. I fundraise for Keswell School every year because my son goes to school there. I’m proud of it. It is a specific type of school. John Henry [Earle’s son] with profound autism. He is non-verbal and he does not speak. He learns everything, but he learns it very slowly. It must be in the environment in which it is. It’s not for everyone with autism. But for people like John Henry, I believe what he needs is what he gets. The student is always engaged one-on-one with someone who knows what he’s doing, not babysitters.
The stereotype of people with autism that angers me is that there is a lack of empathy. It’s just bullshit. It is simply not true. And no one has ever proven that. I’m pretty sure whoever said that was the reason we don’t say Asperger’s anymore. Hans Asperger was a Nazi doctor who experimented on disabled children. He defined what we now call the spectrum, the beginnings of it. For years, if you could talk, you had Asperger’s Syndrome. If you couldn’t, you had autism. Now everything is autism. I’m pretty sure it was Asperger who came up with the idea that they weren’t empathic because they didn’t react to the stimulus the same way other people did. It’s just different. And who knows what causes this? We do not know. We know it’s an epidemic. We know these are not vaccinations. [Laughs] That’s the only thing we ruled out because this guy lost his medical license.
But it’s one of those things – I’m not trying to tell someone else what to do. I do what I do for a reason, the same reason Neil did what he did with Bridge School. I have skin in the game. Political affairs are a little different. It’s just trying not to go to hell. I make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist doing something I really enjoy doing. [Laughs] So I feel like every now and then I have to try to put something back in place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.