On the Road with Steve Earle

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by G.W. Mercure

It’s almost impossible to prepare for an interview with Steve Earle. To do so, one would need to acquire nearly encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music in the twentieth century, especially the intimacies of that music as it developed around the folk revival in New York City in the 1960s and the outlaw country music circles in Nashville in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And I mean Knowledge. Although Earle, who is talkative, insightful, and possesses a tireless ability to find connections among events, ideas, performers, and eras, can feel like the kind of music fan who loses himself in the arcana of American music just like the rest of us, there’s a difference: The man was there.

“I was a kid who read every rock and roll magazine I could get my hands on and the backs of album covers like they were reference works, and I knew about Jerry Jeff earlier than most people in Texas did,” says the three-time Grammy Award winner.

“Jerry Jeff” is Jerry Jeff Walker, the composer of “Mr. Bojangles,” a top ten single for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1971, among many others, and the subject of Earle’s newest album, Jerry Jeff. It’s the fourth album Earle has made of other writers’ material, following Townes, for Townes Van Zandt, Guy, for Guy Clark, and J.T. for his son, the late singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle.

“These records aren’t something I’ve backtracked to, this stuff is firsthand for me. All of the songs on this record, I had those records when they came out. For three of the five members of my band it’s stuff they grew up playing,” he says. “It goes back to earlier than anything besides The Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan.”

Jerry Jeff Walker ended up being more than a creative model for Earle: Both his life and his work made an impression on Earle. “I emulated Jerry Jeff more than anybody else; I hitchhiked everywhere I went. That’s how I got to Nashville in the first place. Jerry Jeff hitchhiked pretty much everywhere in his ‘60s touring days, the folkie days.”

“I wanted this to be all his songs because I don’t want people to think he only wrote one,” he says. “And ‘Mr. Bojangles’ is such an incredible piece of work that that can happen. I think he gets underrated as far as the rest of his body of work,” he says.

Indeed. The album is a fun (“Gettin’ By,” “Gypsy Songman”), poignant (“Little Bird,” “My Old Man”), revelatory (“I Makes Money,” “Hill Country Rain”) snapshot of Walker’s era (“Wheel”) with at least one towering hit (“Mr. Bojangles”).

Earle’s history with and knowledge of the mythology surrounding Walker and especially his most famous song are intimately informed. “I’ve been singing that song longer than anything. I sang it from the time I was 14 to when I was 19 when I met Jerry Jeff and then I kinda quit singing it for 47 years. It’s a pretty special song.” About the composition of the song, Earle says Walker “was crashing with Townes (Van Zandt) and Fran (Petters, Van Zandt’s wife at the time) in an apartment above a coffeehouse called Sand Mountain which is a parking lot now in Houston. It’s a legend, but it’s a pretty-much-confirmed legend, that that song was written in that apartment.”

As faithful as he’s been to Walker, the album still sounds and feels like a Steve Earle album. “I think I’m still doing my best to sound like Jerry Jeff Walker on this record, which I was doing when I was 17. I probably sound more like Jerry Jeff now than when I was 17. But it still ends up sounding like me and that’s good. That means that I haven’t wasted my time doing this, that there is something that feels like me.”

That sound translates well to the stage, where Earle uses the same band, The Dukes. They will perform at Payomet on June 18.

“It’s front-loaded with Jerry Jeff stuff,” Earle says of the tour. “And then a lot of the stuff people want to hear, I think.” He cites fan favorites “Copperhead Road,” “Guitar Town,” and “Galway Girl.”

What’s next for Earle? “I write every day. I mean, literally, every day.” It’s just not always songs. In fact, of late, it is not usually songs. He is involved in a number of theater projects, prose fiction, a pilot for a television show, among other things. I asked if there is another recording project like Jerry Jeff among his plans.

“There’s nobody else that I can think of that I would be connected to enough that I felt obligated to do it except for Doug Sahm,” he says. Sahm was the main songwriter in the Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About a Mover”) and a Tex-Mex pioneer. “I knew him before I knew any of these other people. He was around a lot of the time when I was making [landmark 1988 album] Copperhead Road.”

Copperhead Road and its title track may be what Earle is best known for, but not exclusively. “I’m grateful that there’s more than one!” he says of his most popular numbers. One can’t help but note the contrast with Jerry Jeff Walker.

Steve Earle & The Dukes will perform at Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., N. Truro, Saturday, June 18, 7 p.m. The opening act is J. Robbins. For tickets ($55 – $85/ $52 – $82 members) and information call 508.349.2929 or visit payomet.org.