“I’m trying to get songs on country radio,” says Steve Earle. It’s not what you’d expect from Earle these days, especially when we’re supposed to be discussing it JerryJeffhis new tribute album to ’70s Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker.
But while the idea of a mainstream country hit makes him chuckle, Earle is dead serious. Of the endless creative projects the 67-year-old singer-songwriter juggles after his late-night performances wrap up in the Off-Broadway play coal country — Preparing for a tour with the Dukes, working on a novel, waiting for news of a TV pilot who is “a sci-fi thing in Marfa,” covering and painting “Casey Jones” from the Grateful Dead — nothing got Earle more excited than tender mercy, The 1983 film about a seedy country singer that he’s spent the past year and a half turning into a musical with playwright Daisy Foote.
Earle says he had to write a set of songs for the play’s fictional band that would sound at home in a contemporary country playlist for narrative reasons. “If I can write something for you that you might be hearing on country radio right now, we’ll have a chance Dear Evan Hansen,says Earle, referring to the hit Broadway musical that became a Hollywood blockbuster. “That’s the idea. It’s complete and fully calculated. I want a Broadway hit before I die. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
To learn how to master today’s country, Earle has written with a slew of Nashville pro songwriters including Travis Hill (Kenny Chesney, Chris Janson) and his favorite young newcomer, Elvie Shane, with whom he is currently co-writing a version of ” Pancho and lefties.” He also mentions a song he started with Miranda Lambert, which they’ve been working on for the last two years. “I’m trying to get them to finish a damn song,” he says.
“The money would be good,” Earle says from his New York studio while dreaming of becoming a number one country. “BBut I’m not arrogant enough to think I know how to do it either [write] like that. A few years ago, people used to make me say that country music is mostly hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” (The much-quoted Earle one-liner is from a 2017 interview.)
“But that wasn’t a derogatory statement,” he continues. “It was just a statement of logistics. It was more of a compliment to hip-hop, but it wasn’t offensive. I’ve never been one to say, ‘Hey, what these guys are doing isn’t country.'”
Before Earle can go back to work Tender Mercyhowever, he will spend the summer on tour JerryJeff. A salute to the “Mr. Bojangles” songwriter, it’s Earles four tribute album (and third in the last three years), starting with 2009 citiesfollowed by 2019 Guy and YD 2021, his heartbreaking tribute to his late son Justin Townes Earle. “I hope I don’t do another one,” Earle says of his tribute albums, all of which were made after the death of a dear friend or family member.
So how did JerryJeff, which sounds like the most effortless, free-flowing Earle album in years? According to Earle, there are two reasons, one less poetic than the other. Less glamorously, Earle says he “kinda needed a record this summer” and is far too busy writing music to have enough original material for an album. But, more generously, Walker’s death in 2020 had caused Earle to reflect on the Texas-via-Oneonta, New York songwriter’s influence on his own life — like everything, including his well-documented reverence for Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark , can be traced back to Jerry Jeff.
“I was a lot closer to Townes and Guy, but I never would have found out about them if it wasn’t for Jerry Jeff,” says Earle. “When I first heard a Guy Clark song, Jerry Jeff Walker sang it. It just didn’t make sense for me not to make this record. It just felt like that was a lack of respect for my elders, and probably my best damn part of my character is having respect for my elders. Almost everything else is questionable.”
Earle appreciates the opportunity to talk about it JerryJeff and Tell stories about another bygone legend from his past. When asked what he thinks people don’t know about Walker, he talks non-stop for eight minutes: He talks about how Walker once destroyed Earle’s guitar just months after buying it; as Jimmy Buffett recently told him that inviting Walker to stay with Buffett years ago “ended his marriage”; how Walker and Earle have become much closer in the final years of Walker’s life following his cancer diagnosis; how Walker introduced Earle to the music of Tom Waits; how Earle’s feelings are still a little hurt decades later because Walker once woke him up in the middle of the night to play a song for Neil Young, he asked Earle to sing one by David Olney instead one of his own.
Earle is hoping for his JerryJeff Album reinforces the main point he wants to make about Walker – that he has never received enough credit as a songwriter. Walker’s most famous recordings were often other people’s songs. “‘Mr. Bojangles’ wasn’t the only great song he wrote,” he says. “I wanted to make sure people knew that.”
The only time Earle is livelier than when he’s paying tribute to Walker is when he’s talking about theatre. He’s been seeing as many plays as he can lately: musicals, dramas, everything. He recently attended a performance by Macbeth and is approximately somewhat reluctant to go to David Mamet American buffalo (“It’s a girl who wants to see it”). Earle raves about the Bob Dylan musical Northland girlin part because he sees the play as an opening for the kind of hit musical he feels ready to write Tender Mercy. “It’s 50-year-old women who buy tickets to musicals,” he claims. “But 50-year-old women have grown up with Bob Dylan now, so it’s up to me to do that.”
Earle mentions another play he plans to attend soon, the latest Broadway adaptation by Paula Vogels How I learned to drive. He says he was moved to tears to learn the cast was stepping out on Justin Townes Earle’s “Champagne Corolla,” a song he covered last year JT
Earle’s dedication to theater makes the songwriter as happy as ever to be in New York, where he lives with his youngest son, John Henry. The two recently moved from the Village to Battery Park City. After living in New York for almost two decades, he’s proud to finally own his own apartment, which he bought with the money he recently received from selling all his publish to former Warner CEO Cameron Strang. “I sold everything,” he says. “So I’m starting over as far as being a songwriter and having royalties and copyright income goes…I didn’t get that little bit of money, Bob [Dylan] and Bruce [Springsteen] got, but it was good money for me and I was able to buy an apartment in New York. And I am debt free.”
All of the painting, theatre, writing for television and plotting novels have left Earle almost no time to consume much new music or literature these days. “I read again Harry Potter Books a lot these days,” he says, “because I don’t do dope.”
He also borrows heavily from this current run of incessant creativity. On a rare day off during his tour this July, between dates in Dallas and Austin, he will take his band for about 14 hours round trip to Marfa for the day where his beloved friends Terry and Jo Harvey are Allen celebrating for two weeks their 60th wedding anniversary.
“I have to be there for that,” says Earle. After the losses of Van Zandt, Clark and now Jerry Jeff Walker, it’s perhaps more important than ever for Earle to celebrate his friends and mentors while they’re still thriving. After all, no one has ever accused him of not respecting the elderly.
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/steve-earle-broadway-jerry-jeff-walker-1355557/ Steve Earle Sells His Publishing, Says He’s Writing a New Musical