Steve Earle on the music business, his memoirs, and the political songs he's not ready to share yet

Steve Earle & the Dukes

Steve Earle & the Dukes Photo courtesy of the artist

“I’m not sure modern mainstream country music is about anything, it seems to be party music to me. I like a little guilt in my drinking songs.”

So says Steve Earle, perhaps the most thoughtful and guilt-driven country songwriter this side of Johnny Cash. Earle’s volume of work spans everything from Nashville to outlaw country to alt-country to straight-up rock and roll, all distinctly him. He’s also embraced and processed all their attendant dangers and managed to survive, if sometimes only barely.

Earle is in New York, enduring what seems like an endless stream of East Coast Nor’easters and gearing up for his groundbreaking country-rock crossover album Copperhead Road’s 30th Anniversary tour. Earle and his band—which he calls the best he’s ever had—will be bringing Copperhead Road and some guilty drinking songs to Minneapolis this Wednesday at Pantages Theatre.

In advance of the tour, he’s packing in a lot of interviews, and he sounds a little tired. Over the phone, I can hear him either smoking or sighing every time I ask him a question. Of course, he’s been asked a million questions and there’s not much new under the sun, but he doesn’t begrudge the chance to talk.

“I do this job that Bob Dylan invented and as soon as he invented it he took all the air out of the room so he doesn’t have to do interviews and the rest of us do,” he says amiably. “I’ve never been able to depend on consistent airplay or anything but people writing about me.” This is awfully humble for a man who is more quotable than the vast majority of his musical peers, which I point out to him.

“Hopefully you won’t be disappointed.”

Earle is a true grinder—he’s spent decades doing exactly what he wants to do, damn the torpedoes, damn the highs and lows, and damn the record sales. In those decades, he’s collected a vast wisdom of life in the music industry, which had led to some unique insights on the state of music today. Even though he’s never achieved the level of popular success as some of his peers, he seems not to care.

“I grew up in the ’80s music business. I got to Nashville in the ’70s, took 13 years to get my first record deal with Epic. They were in the Michael Jackson business, and I knew that. I knew people like me only got deals to make them look cool. In those days singer-songwriters, as long as they didn’t spend too much money on the record, they broke even, that was considered OK and everybody looked cool. I knew I lived on the margins, and I think I’ve done OK.”

While his first album, Guitar Town, is a critical classic, it was Copperhead Road’s crossover appeal when it was released in 1988 that gained him broader attention and mainstream rock radio play, even if his description of it as a cross of “heavy metal and bluegrass” at the time was a joke.

“It was influenced by hard rock records that were being made at the time,” he says. “I knew a lot of people in hard rock bands. But my real contemporaries were people in alternative rock circles. My graduating class was alternative—R.E.M., Jason & the Scorchers, the Athens bands, we all played the same clubs.”

As described by Earle, that scruffy underbelly knew no genre. It was just a different way of doing things, and that was influential on all his work. “There’s always been a hipper, younger, louder version of country music. Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, that stuff fascinated me. It was like the country I loved and the rock and roll I loved. Then outlaw country. By the time I got out of jail people were talking about alt-country. There’s always been country music that’s had to work around what Nashville defined as country music at the time.”

Though Copperhead Road is widely thought of as an overtly political record, critical of Ronald Reagan and the direction the country was moving in the 1980s, Earle is quick to point out that “Side one was the political songs, and side two are the chick songs nobody’s heard since.” What’s his reaction to the current political climate? He’s writing, of course.

“I’m still writing the political record, but I’m going to hold it and keep writing it because I want it to be exactly right, and not come out until late 2019/2020 so it bumps up right against the election cycle, to be quite honest,” he says. But, he adds, just because he takes on politics doesn’t mean he thinks songwriters are obligated to. “Not everybody should write political songs. Not everybody can do it.”

So how have things changed since those scruffy, road-dog ’80s? “The music business as I knew it doesn’t exist anymore. By the time Justin [Townes Earle, his son] started making records, I didn’t know what to tell him. The business was changing so fast, and he’s been making records for over a decade. The industry isn’t dying—it’s done.”

When asked, Earle—who always looks inward for accountability—points not to the money but the product. “I don’t think it’s all about downloading, all about ‘them,’” he says. “I think artists don’t take enough responsibility. I grew up in an era where albums became coin of the realm. The money was in songwriting. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan, they all wrote their own songs, so everybody did, instead of looking outside. But there’s a lot of good singers, guitar players, performers who weren’t put here to be good songwriters.”

The result? Those talents were wasted on subpar songs and albums that didn’t hold up to the test of time. “Maybe we weren’t coming up with the highest product for the last 10-15 years of the bubble. So people wanted just the good songs, and we got back to singles. Some of it was greed by labels, some of it was us not delivering the goods and people getting the technology to not put up with it anymore.”

So how does Earle get by in this new era? “My audience wants albums and they think in terms of albums,” he says. “I’m still going to make albums. I’m not going to sell millions of records, so I have to maximize every release, and I sell a lot of records that I sell at shows.”

When not composing new music, Earle’s dipped his feet in acting (his work as Walon on The Wire introduced him to a new generation of fans) and writing novels and his memoirs, which he describes as the most painful thing I’ve ever done. (And that’s saying a lot.) “You get tired of waking up in the morning and writing about you,” he says. “It’s boring. I’m not really afraid of revealing things about myself, but it gets boring. When I was writing my novel it was exciting, because I really didn’t know how it ended. This one? I know how it ends, more or less.”

Steve Earle & the Dukes
With: The Mastersons
Pantages Theatre
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 21
$48.50-$58.50; more info here