Why buy the cowboy (or cowgirl), if you can get the milk for free?
Sitting with the storied singer-songwriter Steve Earle, I suggest to him that today’s devaluation of music has contributed to a degradation of songwriting. He’s not buying it – at all.
“I think you may have it precisely backward,” Mr. Earle says. “I think artists are as much the cause for the demise of the music business as Napster was. We don’t take responsibility for what we had to do with it.”
Mr. Earle was in Toronto recently to talk up his latest album, Guy, a tribute to folk-country songwriter Guy Clark, a mentor of Mr. Earle’s who succumbed to cancer in 2016. We’re talking at a table at the Cameron House, a songwriters’ venue, but also a saloon (although the place is still a few hours away from its daily 4 p.m. opening). “A closed bar is no threat to me,” says Mr. Earle, long sober after deep misadventures with cocaine and heroin in the early nineties. “I don’t assume alcohol can’t take me out, but it was never my favourite. I always considered it to be an inefficient drug.”
About people paying for music, Mr. Earle believes in the concept of intellectual property, but that there needs to be a level of trust between the artist and the audience, and that the trust was violated at some point. “If you got in the music business by the time I did, you realized that the vast majority of the money was in publishing,” says Mr. Earle, who moved to Nashville in the mid-seventies. “Everybody decided they had to write their own songs, but not everybody was put on this planet to be a songwriter.”
Mr. Earle goes on to talk about John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and how they elevated rock 'n’ roll to an art form and "raised the songwriting bar overnight.” To his mind, the quality of albums in the 1970s and 80s began decreasing “day by day,” which didn’t stop record companies from charging more and more for them.
Okay, so, who killed songwriting after the mid-sixties renaissance? “Firefall," Mr. Earl says, referring to the You Are the Woman country-rock middleweights. “But they were chasing Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose records were seminal to me.”
Mr. Earle, at 64 years old and with a long, greying beard seemingly ordered from the ZZ Top catalogue, has outlived his wild days and his two hard-living hero-cohorts Mr. Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The latter songwriter (a drug-and-alcohol abuser who died at the age of 52 in 1997) was the subject of a previous tribute album from Mr. Earle, 2009′s Townes. “We were all folkies,” Mr. Earle says of the threesome, who shared Texas roots. “But we all grew up with a country-music background, so we all felt qualified to be in Nashville.”
The trio were chief figures in the 1970s outlaw country movement, which paved the way for what is now known as Americana music. As songwriting guides, Mr. Clark and Mr. Van Zandt had different methods, according to Mr. Earle. “Townes would tell me to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But Guy would ask me, ‘Why are you writing with a pen? Write with a pencil, with a big eraser.'”
Mr. Clark was big on pencils, so much so that pencil maker Blackwing dedicated its Blackwing 1 model to him. According to the company’s website, Blackwing’s first round pencil – “Guy’s preference” – features “a matte grey washcoat finish that lets the wood grain show through and a ‘blue collar’ eraser that pays tribute to Clark’s favourite blue shirt.”
“We were a salon,” Mr. Earle says of the last-call coterie, which also included Jerry Jeff Walker (who penned – or pencilled? – Mr. Bojangles). “We were a group of people who decided to make music for art’s sake,” continued the rough-cut troubadour, who released his debut album, Guitar Town, in 1986. “We weren’t in Nashville to write the next hit for Ronnie Milsap."
Mr. Clark managed to sustain a long career without a great number of hits. “It’s about conviction,” says Mr. Earle, whose own highest mainstream charter was 1988′s Copperhead Road. “It’s telling yourself, ‘I’m going to keep doing it, even if there’s no money in it.’”
Is there any money in it, in the age of streaming? “Well, I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I’ll have to self-fund my own records,” Mr. Earle says. “But that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this to write songs to play them for people.”
For now, there’s still a market for that.
Steve Earle plays Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont., on July 13; Craven, Sask., Jul 14; Sudbury July 16; North Bay, Ont., July 17; Bala, Ont., July 18; Kemptville, Ont., July 19; Fisher River Cree Nation, Man., July 28; and Cross Lake, Man., July 30.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.