Steve Earle Takes Songwriting Break to Honor Van Zandt (and to Write a Novel about Roe v. Wade?)
Steve Earle is one of those people for whom I have decidedly mixed feelings, which causes me great consternation every time I have to decide whether to plop down some money to buy a CD.
On the one hand, I recognize Earle's brilliance as a singer-songwriter and a performer. His album with the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain, for example, is one of the BEST albums in the Americana/Bluegrass/Roots Country genre that you'll ever find. And I'm thrilled with the prospect of his upcoming release, Townes, which is a tribute to his mentor (and one of the greatest songwriters of all time), Townes Van Zandt.
On the other hand, Earle's Che-loving brand of leftism is hard to take. But there's no question that he has something to say and, whether you agree with his message or not, it makes him who he is and his music what it is. So, I just suck it up and listen to a great musician making some fine music.
HOWEVER, there is one political line that, should Earle cross it, would make it difficult for me to remain a fan. On the basis of something he said in this interview, it looks like we'll find out fairly soon whether that line gets crossed:
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Steve Earle knew the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt so well that he watched him play Russian roulette one night when he was drunk and admires him so much that he named his son after him.(emphasis and editorial commentary added)
Earle honors Van Zandt's influence on "Townes," which comes out May 12 on New West Records, by playing his songs in the same stark style in which they were originally recorded.
"Townes was, literally, my mentor," says Earle, who picked up Van Zandt's talent for songwriting and his propensity for hard living. "This may be the best record I've ever done," he adds. "And that hurts my feelings because I'm a singer-songwriter."
Billboard: Why did you decide to record an album of Townes Van Zandt songs?
Steve Earle: I did it now to facilitate finishing my novel -- I started the novel six years ago and writing songs for this album would take a few (more) months out of that process. I had thought of doing this a few times, but I talked myself out of it every time because I'm a singer-songwriter and I had something I wanted to say.
Billboard: Why Van Zandt instead of, say, Woody Guthrie?
Earle: I didn't know Woody Guthrie. I was in Texas, and by the time I was 17 I knew Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. There were a lot of really good songwriters in Texas when I was growing up, and the people you can sit in the same room with are going to affect you more than the people you just hear on records. Every single one of these tracks, my heart rate went up when I did it. And I realized that of course I have an emotional stake in these songs -- this is the reason I became a songwriter.
[ED.: So far, so good. Lots of good stuff about Texas Music and some of my favorite singer-songwriters. But then, a few questions and answers later, we get to the money quote.]
Billboard: What's your novel about?
Earle: It's my second book -- it's about a defrocked doctor who's a heroin addict who lives in San Antonio in 1963. Ten years before, he was traveling with Hank Williams when he died. And Hank Williams' ghost shows up. The short answer is it's about Hank Williams' ghost and heroin and Roe v. Wade. I may get my ass kicked for this, but no one can say I'm not going for it.
[ED.: Oh, dear Lord. Cringing at first. And then rolling my eyes, wondering if roots-country-rock's ultimate rebel is really just a conventional party-line leftist who is so beholden to taking the "politically correct" position on things that he can't see the plight of the unborn as THE civil rights issue of our time. And by whom is he expecting to "get [his] ass kicked for this"? That really isn't the style of the vast majority of pro-lifers; even the violent extremists who were involved in things like clinic bombings in decades past don't seem to be around much these days. Or, is Earle perhaps talking about some of the folks on the left who might not be so forgiving should one of their cultural icons decide to "betray" them by writing a book that fails to pay homage to Roe? I'm hoping he'll buck the conventional wisdom and get on the right side of history (but I'm not holding my breath). I guess we'll just have to wait until the book comes out to find out.]