The Dukes of Earle: Steve Earle returns to Belfast
As Steve Earle & The Dukes return to Belfast, David Roy quizzed the veteran musician, author and actor about his new blues-centric album Terraplane, how this Texas-born long-time Nashville resident has found his ideal base in New York City and why he's taking one of his recent records to Broadway
HELLO Steve, how have your recent gigs in England with The Dukes been going?
Pretty good. We've been on the road in the US since April and I'm pretty proud of this show, maybe even more than any other tour I've had out.
The band is smokin', the best band I've ever had, and I haven't really changed the setlist since early in the tour because I haven't had to.
Sometimes it takes you a while to find something that works and you have to switch it up a little more, but with this one I've only moved one song since we left rehearsal and I haven't got bored playing it this way yet.
The encores change a little bit, but not much else.
Are the crowds enjoying the bluesy songs off the new album, Terraplane?
Yeah, they are. I mean we're playing stuff that goes back to the first record on this tour but it's sort of bookended with the blues stuff.
There's older blues songs that I have which fit in real well with the newer ones so we're playing some stuff that we haven't played in a while because of that, which is kind of cool.
Why a blues album? Did it have anything to do with your impending divorce (to seventh soon-to-be ex-wife and long-time musical collaborator Allison Moorer)?
Yeeee-ah! I was already headed towards that direction because of my life at the time, so it was kind of appropriate.
There's a very high bar when you make a blues record when you come from where I come from. While the blues have always been part of what I do, right now we had the guitar player who could really do it justice in Chris Masterson (who also features in support act The Mastersons) – he cut his teeth on this stuff.
Also, you have to challenge yourself to keep writing. I guess it's sort of like when you colour all the time with the 32-colour box of crayons and you suddenly limit yourself to eight.
But you pick the colours and it sort of stimulates you to some degree, because you just have to work a little harder to make something of it.
It was kind of the same impetus when I made the bluegrass record (1999's The Mountain), it was just something that I felt I needed to do.
So, musically, I'm really proud of it. As far as it being a 'divorce record', I just write about what's going on – so it would have been a divorce record even if it hadn't been a blues record.
You managed to write the best ZZ Top song that ZZ Top never wrote in Go-Go Boots Are Back Again. Was that intentional?
That was absolutely on purpose. For me, it was important that a couple of things were included in my description of the blues: one is Canned Heat and the other is ZZ Top, just because of my age and I the fact I come from Texas.
Billy Gibbons is a bad-ass. Anyone who doesn't think that he is a bluesman just doesn't get it.
I've known Billy (ZZ Top singer/guitarist) all of my adult life but I only ever actually performed with him for the first time recently, at a David Byrne tribute at Carnegie Hall.
We did A Million Miles Away with Atibalas as the band, so it was perfect. He played a great solo, actually.
You've been based in New York City for over 15 years now – are you pretty settled there?
I miss New York a lot. It's weird, I'm not used to being homesick. I never was when I lived in Nashville.
Some of it is that I've got a little boy who's five (John Henry, his son with Allison Moorer), so I hate being away from him. But I even miss New York itself: I love my apartment and my neighbourhood in Greenwich Village.
I know way more people in my neighbourhood in New York than I ever did when I lived in Tennessee – when I lived there I was in a car all the f***in' time. Now I'm walking down the block and I know the mailman, the Fed-Ex guy, the guy at the deli on the corner and even people I bump into while shopping or doing our laundry at the same places.
And of course, there's all the history of what I do in that neighbourhood too. Like, Meegan Ochs (daughter of 60s protest singer Phil) just recently sent me a photo of her and her father on the roof of the building next door to mine back in 1965.
Unfortunately there's more investment bankers than musicians there these days because it's become a very expensive place to live.
But although it's expensive, it's worth it. It's strange, it's maybe the only place I've ever really felt at home. When I finally get home, I really feel like I'm home.
What's this about a musical version of your New York-inspired 2010 LP Washington Square Park?
Yeah, I'm developing a Broadway musical based on most of the songs from that record. The idea for the story is that there were around 20,000 people buried under Washington Square Park in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
There's this kid who busks there and gives tours of The Village, so that's where the audience kind of learns the history involved. It turns out that everyone this kid knows from the park, all these buskers and chess players, are all ghosts.
I'm looking for a writer to work on it with me and talking to several different producers at the moment.
I'm also working on some other stuff at home: I'm doing music for one piece with the Public Theatre and then music for another piece with Soho Rep.
Part of the reason I moved to New York was to get into theatre. And now, while I still love to tour, I want to be at home to see this little boy grow up too.
You've certainly been a regular visitor to Ireland and Belfast over the years, are you looking forward to playing here again this week?
Yeah. Actually, I was in Ireland for the longest I've ever been last summer on my solo tour around Europe.
I played in Dublin and Belfast and then I went out to Galway for the races. As much time as I've spent in Galway over the years I had never done that before.
I'm actually most used to to Galway in the winter time, because that's when all the musicians are home and I can sit in on sessions. I'd always managed to avoid the racing season– and now I know why.
There were more people than I'd ever seen there, it was absolutely jammed.
But y'know, I figured out that I could make a fortune if I brought a couple of girls over from New York and set up a concession in the middle of Galway races to teach those girls how to walk on their heels.