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Steve Earle Is Ready to Say Good-bye to the Tribute Album

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

“I’m deaf in one ear and can’t hear in the other,” says Steve Earle, laughing while asking me to repeat a question. “I don’t see how I’m still in the music business.”
Even longtime fans are probably amazed by the longevity of the 67-year-old Grammy-winning outlaw country legend.

Many of his current tales involve his mentor, lifelong friend, and subject of Earle’s latest tribute album, the late singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker. According to Earle, Jerry Jeff (out May 27th on New West Records) is the final covers album in a series that includes his other mentors, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and last year’s tribute to his late son, the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle. Jerry Jeff also stands out as one of his most immediate and enjoyable LPs. It feels especially welcoming for newcomers to both Walker and Earle, even if it marks the end of an era. “I hope I don’t have to make any more tribute records,” says Earle, who’s currently working on a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1983 film Tender Mercies. “The Justin one, that happened, and it was the only thing I could do. I’m ready to make a record of my own songs again.”

Tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Jerry Jeff Walker.
I knew who Jerry Jeff Walker was long before I knew who Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were, and that was because my biology teacher in high school wanted me to do “Mr. Bojangles” in a school production. I knew those records before Jerry Jeff came to Texas to live and wear a cowboy hat. I wanted to be Jerry Jeff Walker more than anything else in the world for several years.

The songs you picked for Jerry Jeff feel like a nice split between Walker’s early era of Greenwich Village folk and “Mr. Bojangles,” and Viva Terlingua and the Texas outlaw country he did later.
I used to play most of both [1972’s] Jerry Jeff Walker and [1973’s] Viva Terlingua when I only had a few songs of my own when I was out playing bars. Just as I got old enough to play a bar, I was playing “Charlie Dunn.” My band [the Dukes] grew up listening to this stuff too.

I was sad you didn’t include “Pissin’ in the Wind” on the record.
I don’t want to get into critiquing it. But I think that’s why I put the songs on the record that I did because I don’t want people to think that Jerry Jeff Walker is about “Pissin’ in the Wind.”

“Mr. Bojangles” is the one Jerry Jeff Walker song that most people will likely have heard of. How did you approach covering such a well-known and oft-covered song?
I think we did a pretty good job. I mean, I did it with the Opry Band a few weeks ago. It’s kind of hard to fuck up. I looked up halfway through and every cell phone in the balcony was lit and by the time I was done, the downstairs was lit too. It’s just that kind of song.

What did you learn about songwriting from recording these Walker songs that you didn’t learn from Van Zandt or Clark?
Guy’s stuff is the stuff I teach the most. I know how he wrote because he told me, he showed me, and he taught me how he did what he did. Townes would give me a book — give me a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee — and tell me to go read it. Walker was our connection to Greenwich Village.

I was just lucky. I had good teachers. But I did utilize that on purpose. I’m not shy. I followed these guys around. [Laughs] I was a pain in the ass, no doubt about it. But they were generous too, those three guys. Townes was probably harder on me than anybody else because he was pretty hard on everybody. Jerry Jeff could be, but he was always pretty nice to me.

I need to hear more about the time you were Walker’s driver and he asked you to play for Neil Young.
When I was in Nashville, Jerry Jeff would show up every once in a while to record something. He’d reached a point where he couldn’t afford to get stopped in Nashville anymore. So he’d come and get me to drive for him, which may or may not have been smart. But I didn’t have as many dings on my license.

One night, he came and got me. He said, “Hey, I want you to come down and play a song for Neil.” And I said: Okay, whatever, it’s Jerry Jeff Walker. I got in the car. And I didn’t know who Neil was until we got to the Spence Manor. It turned out it was Neil Young.

Walker didn’t want me to play one of my songs. He wanted me to play a David Olney song called “Illegal Cargo.” Because he knew that I knew it because I champion other people’s songs, too. It hurt my feelings quite a bit, but I played it. And I met Neil Young, so.

How did Neil respond?
He liked “Illegal Cargo” and I think I played some stuff later. But what stuck with me is that I got brought up there to play a David Olney song. When I saw David, I said, “Fuck you.” But I also told him that I played the song and that Neil liked it.

In Kelefa Sanneh’s recent book Major Labels, you’re credited as an example of a country singer-songwriter who found success without country radio. Do you ever check in with country radio today, even just out of curiosity?
No. I didn’t listen to it then unless I had to. I grew up in a place with good rock ’n’ roll and good country music. I never liked the dividers between different kinds of music in the first place. I always thought they were in the way.

I was making a country record on purpose when I made Guitar Town. Before that, I was just taking money under false pretenses. All of us were. We wanted to be singer-songwriters. We weren’t really interested in the genre. We were interested in making great albums of our own music. But people would pay us to be songwriters. Bob Beckham knew that you had to let Kris Kristofferson write the “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” demo if you wanted to get “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” There are a few people like that.

I’m not going to be the guy that’s gonna tell you that what’s going on in country radio right now is not country, because that’s not true. It’s country because it’s what’s going on in country radio. There are a lot of people making records in Nashville that blame a lot of what they’re doing on me. Some people complain I’m the reason the drums are too fucking loud. I was the first one to do that. Somebody asked me about country music, and I said, from what I can tell, it’s hip-hop for people that are afraid of Black people. I didn’t mean that in any sort of derogatory fashion at all. I just meant it’s arrived at the same way.

You have a son on the autism spectrum. I’m also on the spectrum, and I know you do the yearly benefit show for New York’s Keswell School. How do you navigate talking about and championing autism in the music industry?
It’s tricky. In this world that I live in, our mantra is: You know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. It’s all different.

I’ve had the same question asked when it comes to political music. I’m not a political songwriter. I write more songs about girls than I do anything else. I just grew up in an era where you write about whatever affects your life. I raise money for the Keswell School every year because my son goes to school there. I’m proud of that. It’s a specific kind of school. John Henry [Earle’s son] has profound autism. He’s nonverbal, and he doesn’t speak. He learns everything, but he learns it very slowly. He needs to be in the environment that he’s in. This is not for everybody with autism. But for people like John Henry, my belief is that what he needs is what he’s getting. The student is always engaged one-on-one with someone that knows what the fuck they’re doing, not babysitters.

The stereotype of people with autism that makes me angry is that there’s a lack of empathy. That’s just bullshit. It’s just not true. And no one’s ever proven that. I’m pretty sure the person that said that was the reason we don’t say Asperger’s anymore. Hans Asperger was a Nazi doctor who was experimenting on kids with disabilities. He defined what we call the spectrum now, the beginnings of it. For years, if you could talk, you had Asperger’s. If you couldn’t, you had autism. Now it’s all autism. I’m pretty sure it was Asperger that came up with the idea that they were not empathetic because they weren’t responding to stimulus the same way that other people did. It’s just different. And who knows what causes this? We don’t know. We know it’s epidemic. We know it’s not vaccinations. [Laughs] That’s the only thing that we’ve ruled out because that guy lost his medical license.

But it’s one of those things — I don’t try to tell anyone else what to do. I do what I do for a reason, the same reason Neil did what he did with the Bridge School. I got skin in the game. The political stuff is a little different. That’s just trying not to go to hell. I make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist doing something that I really love doing. [Laughs] So I feel like every once in a while, I gotta try to put something back.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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