Steve Earle Heads to Rhythm & Roots

earleOkee dokee folks… I had the chance to speak with one of the headliners of this year’s Rhythm and Roots Festival, Steve Earle. Here is our conversation. Read on…

John Fuzek: Hello, Steve?
Steve Earle: Hello…
JF: Where are you calling from?
SE: I’m outside of Detroit.
JF: Are you playing a show tonight?
SE: Yes, it’s the last couple of dates of a tour.
JF: So, you’re going to be at Rhythm and Roots Festival in Charlestown Labor Day weekend. You have played that festival a few times.
SE: Couple times I think, yeah, it’s a good festival!
JF: I’m at the festival and I have worked with you a few times, at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival as well.
SE: Cool, I remember doing that.
JF: Do you remember the lighted peace sign up in the tree that you had me get turned back on for you?
SE: Yeah, because fucking (Ricky) Skaggs had it turned off!
JF: I went and got it turned back on for you, I was stage managing that show.
SE: Yeah, because Jesus hates peace…whatever…
JF: At one time I recall you saying something like, “I want to walk out the front door of my house and see a same sex, multi-racial family with a kid.”
SE: That’s not exactly what I said. What I said was, “I reached a point when I was talking to someone about moving to New York that I reached a point in my life that it makes me feel safer to walk out my front door to see a mixed race same sex couple walking down the street holding hands.” I never said anything about a kid, but I’m ok with that.
JF: I was pulling it from memoryj. I just remembered that I liked that comment.
SE: That’s how rumors get started, people remember them and they trust their memory. It’s fine, I’m okay with what you said, but it wasn’t exactly what I said.
JF: Do you still feel that way?
SE: Yeah, I don’t …what was your question?
JF: Do you live in New York or Nashville?
SE: I live in New York.
JF: So, how do you feel about your statement now? I mean I agree with what you said, but how do you feel about it in the current political climate?
SE: This has all happened before. Woody Guthrie sang about it in the ’30s and ’40s, it happened in the ’30s and ’40s. It’s fascism, it’s basically very, very rich, powerful people that have an agenda about getting more rich and more powerful and one of the ways that they maintain that power base is to keep people afraid of each other. The truth is that this country exists because of immigration and we’re nothing without immigration, it’s who we are. The truth is that when people get rich they don’t want to mow their own lawn anymore so they look for workers, and it’s gone on and on and on. And the truth is some people do manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, not everybody, but some people do and those people become powerful. Unfortunately the pattern is that they start discriminating against somebody that they perceive to be less powerful than they are and, it’s a bummer, it’s human nature.
JF: So your song, “The Revolution Starts Now” has become more important I think, don’t you?
SE: Yeah, we probably should be playing it more than we are, and we probably will soon.
JF: Are you shows more politically charged these days or are you staying neutral?
SE: They’re not neutral, everybody knows, I mean, look, the last record was sort of not that political because I didn’t know that this was going to happen when I was writing the songs. The next record is going to be a record of Guy Clarke songs. The reason for that is that I need to do it at some point in my life before I die because I don’t want to meet him on the other side having made the Townes’ (Van Zandt) record and not made his record. I’m writing a record that is just as country as the last one, but way more political. I want that record to come out in 2020, but I will put the Guy record out first, then record the other record and it will come out in 2020, and then batten down the hatches.
JF: So you’re going to go out on the road with Emmy Lou for the immigration policy?
SE: Right, that’s me, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Lila Downs on most of them.
JF: Is it strictly for immigration? Is it a fundraising tour or informational?
SE: It’s a benefit for the women refugee camps. We are going after these detention centers and these people, our immigration policy that separates women from their children, that’s what the whole issue is
JF: You are doing about a half dozen dates?
SE: Yeah, there’s like five or six this time, for a start.
JF: And if it happens to be hugely successful, will you continue it?
SE: The plan is that we will do it every year until it’s not an issue anymore. With all these issues you hope that there’s no need for them at some point in the future.
JF: So, you are bringing your band The Dukes to Rhythm and Roots Festival?
SE: Yes, this will be the Dukes.
JF: Will you be sitting in with any other acts?
SE: I have no idea. There will be a lot of people I know from Louisiana at that festival, so you can never tell what happens. I am not sure when I get in and have to leave, so I don’t know for sure, could happen.
JF: Back in the early ’80s is when i first heard you. It was on CMT-Country Music Television and it was your song “Guitar Town.” Country music back then was just starting to become new again. What do you think of the country music that’s out now?
SE: I think, um, I like what the women are doing better than the men. It’s fine, they finally found their youth audience, but it’s kind of party music. I like my drinking songs with a little guilt in them, but that’s the way it is, whatever.
JF: How do you feel about the incorporation of DJs and rap into country?
SE: I have no problem with that. You’re trying to get me to repeat a quote that you read somewhere, is what you’re trying to do.
JF: No, I actually never heard a quote from you about this.
SE: Oh, bullshit, I don’t believe you.
JF: No, I never heard it.
SE: Well what I said was, pretty famously, and it’s been printed all over the place, so you’ve been under a rock if you haven’t heard it, what I said is that country music today is basically hip-hop for people that are afraid of black people. And I think that’s true, but I have no aversion to the advent of hip-hop or DJ recording techniques. That’s not what it’s about, it’s just about the fact that there’s a need for that to exist is more of a social commentary on the music business and it’s, you know, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t think it’s about anything, the hip-hop that I love is about something. I’ve never given a thought the Big Willy stuff or the party stuff when it comes to hip-hop, but I’m not the same way about country music.
JF: I honestly never heard that quote, I was just curious how you felt about it. I see country music going in weird directions.
SE: They’re just trying to reach a younger audience, and they did it, and country music has been trying to do that for a long time. I’m ok with that, that doesn’t bother me. I made a record that was essentially a folk record, Washington Square Serenade. That was me and a bunch of acoustic instruments and beats. I don’t have an aversion to anybody, I have a band, I have a great band and at this point in my life I’ve gotten kind of old fashioned about my recordings. I just kind of go in with a band that can play and stick microphones in front of them and record it, but I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat and I support it all as long as it says something. I’m not talking about politically, I just talking about say anything besides yee-haw.
JF: What do you think of the song “Steve Earle” by the band Sugarland?
SE: I’ve never heard it, I avoided it intentionally. I don’t read things. I’ve never read a review of one of my shows or one of my records in over 20 years. When I heard there was a song — there are actually two songs called “Steve Earle” — there’s one, an alternative artist, I can’t remember who it is right now. Lydia Loveless, I think. I’ve avoided hearing both of them, because I don’t think it’s good for me (laughs).
JF: I had never heard of it and someone told me about it so I gave it a listen. It was okay, it was kind of silly actually. Do you still have “Copperhead Road” in your set list? That was kind of your breakthrough hit for mainstream.
SE: Yeah, we play it every night. We’ve been doing the whole album. That’s what we’ve been doing this year, mostly we’ve been doing Copperhead Road 30th anniversary. I don’t know what we are doing at Rhythm and Roots, that might be a Copperhead show. I don’t know what was advertised, and I don’t really want to talk about that. We play what we play, but we play “Copperhead Road” the song every night.
JF: Cool. Do you still play “Guitar Town” and “Satisfied”?
SE: Every night, I play “Guitar Town” every night, I play “Satisfied” every night in Canada and sometimes in other places, every night in Europe, it wasn’t as big of a deal here as it was there.
JF: Those are the songs that introduced me to you, I have the vinyl from back then. So, you have kind of a reputation as a tough guy and people think that you have a gruff exterior. I’ve met you many times and you have been nothing but polite and everyone seems to be shocked when i say that.
SE: I’m not impolite, I have manners, I’m not an impolite person. People think what they think based on appearance and based on other things they’ve heard, just like you repeated that quote the way you remembered it. You didn’t say anything bad, or anything that I disagreed with or anything that I would be ashamed of, but it isn’t exactly what I said. You understand. So everything gets repeated, it gets distorted a little bit, sometimes that can be really radical. It’s like that game where you whisper something in someone’s ear and then they whisper it in someone else’s ear and then they whisper it in someone else’s ear and it becomes what it becomes.
JF: Right. I mean I have seen the softer side of you. Backstage at Grey Fox you had a little dog and you were kissing your dog. I thought that was pretty funny and cool!
SE: Oh, that was Petey. I lost custody of that dog. He’s still alive. Allison (Moorer) has him. He was a little teeny-tiny puppy then. He’s 13 years old now, and he lives with Allison. I don’t get to see him. Maybe once in a while when I pick my kid up or drop him off.
JF: I mean nobody can be a real asshole and be that good to a dog.
SE: I don’t think I’m an asshole, but there are probably people that do.
JF: You said something about putting out political stuff in 2020, but have you written any kind of blatant song about Trump yet? I’m a songwriter and I have tried to write one.
SE: Not directly. Randy Newman’s written one that’s really good. I’ve started the record that I’ve talked about and I’ve written a few things, but I don’t really want to talk about it because some of them are going to be involved in a theater project that I am doing for the public theater and some of them are just for the record. I’m not trying to write a record that’s preaching to the choir. I’ve already done that. I want to make a record that speaks to some of the people that voted for Trump and maybe didn’t have to. That’s the record I want to make.
JF: How do you go over in mixed crowds? I know that Rhythm and Roots tends to be a mixed crowd, you get right and left wing people. Do you get complaints from the audience if you start with the politics?
SE: Sure, I get complaints, I get death threats, I get everything. I get them off and on ever since “John Walker’s Blues.”
JF: Is there anything that you would like to add about Rhythm and Roots Festival?
SE: Not really, it’s one of my favorite festivals and I’m really looking forward to it.

You can hear Steve Earle perform live at this year’s Rhythm and Roots Festival on Friday, August 31 at 9:30pm. But wait, there’s more! The three day line-up includes: Taj Mahal, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, Los Texmaniacs, Leftover Salmon, Asleep at the Wheel, Shinyribs, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and so many more. For the full schedule and ticket info take the “Nowhere Road” to That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.

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