Three-time Grammy Award recipient and 11-time Grammy nominee Steve Earle is a cornerstone artist of Americana music. One of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, he has released twenty albums – a number of them were as Steve Earle and the Dukes, one was Colvin and Earle, another was Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, etc. Earle’s songs have been recorded by such music legends as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill and Joan Baez. He has created such country successes as “When You Fall in Love,” “Guitar Town,” “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left,” “A Far Cry From You” and “Nowhere Road.” During his four-decade career, Earle has also become a novelist, a film, TV and stage actor, a playwright, a short story author, a record producer and a radio host. He is a longtime activist whose causes have included the abolition of the death penalty and the removal of the confederate flag. Always musically adventurous, Steve Earle has crafted folk, blues, rock, country, rockabilly and bluegrass recordings. His diverse collaborators on disc have included such notables as The Pogues, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, The Fairfield Four, The Indigo Girls, Chris Hillman, Sheryl Crow and Shawn Colvin. His new Warner Bros. Records album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, explores his country songwriting roots and includes collaborations with Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush and Miranda Lambert.
Hard times out here in Outlaw Country, the good ones dropping like flies. We lost Hag last year. Leon Russell’s gone, too, and closer to my own heart and home, my personal teachers, Steve Young and Guy Clark. And ol’ Death doesn’t discriminate for reasons of age. He took contemporaries and students of mine away from here as well (RIP Greg Trooper and Bap Kennedy).
Now, it’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect it but most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North Wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.
Good. That’s what I was going for.
I was the Kid when I arrived in Nashville, assuming that mantle from Rodney Crowell as he shipped off to the coast to front Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. On any given night you could find a dozen good songwriters and a couple of great ones up late in somebody’s house or a hotel room passing a guitar around and trying our most recent creations out on each other. There was no caste system. Established writers like Guy (and don’t forget Susanna), Steve Young and Billy Joe Shaver rubbed elbows with street level scufflers like myself, David Olney and Richard Dobson.
Occasionally out of town luminaries the likes of Roger Miller, Mickey Newbury and even Neil Young would fall by. On your way home you could stumble over to J.J.’s Market and find Waylon-By-God-Jennings and Tompall Glazer banging away on adjacent pinball machine until sunrise.
It was fucking glorious.
We were the Night Shift, denizens of a nocturnal Nashville that no longer exists, a brief and shining moment when the inmates were clearly in charge of the asylum. Without a doubt we were surfing a shock wave that had been set off a thousand miles away in Austin by Willie Nelson. But for us, the Nashville contingent, in the winter of 1975, the center of our universe was Waylon Jennings. He led and we followed and for a minute there it looked for all the world like a change had finally come and we would reshape Music City in our own individual images.
And then, it was done. Gone. Perhaps we were victims of our own excess. It’s possible that it was simply inevitable and only a matter of time before the mop up crew moved in and restored the “natural” order of things along 16th and 17th Avenues. Maybe it was a little of both.
Now, me, I’ve never been big on looking back. Determinedly forging ahead always seemed to be the far better part of valor.
But I’ve been attending an awful lot of funerals lately and maybe that, alone explains my sudden need to acknowledge where I come from, to revisit the solid foundation upon which I have constructed this house of cards of mine. Maybe it’s just looking in the mirror at “the age in my eyes” and remembering that in spite of the obvious math, nobody that knew me back then, when I was 20 and Waylon was 38, would have ever believed that I’d still be here today and he’d be gone all this time.
When I was locked up I received a letter from Waylon. Well, actually, when I opened the envelope I found that it contained only a photograph, a snapshot of Waylon, onstage somewhere “out there”, playing his tooled leather covered Telecaster. Around his wrist was tied a bright red bandana. On the back of the photos was inscribed, in Waylon’s unmistakable sprawling scrawl:
I’M WEARING THE BANDANA FOR YOU
So, it’s been way too long coming back around but better late than never I guess.
This record is dedicated to the memory of Waylon Jennings. See you when I get there, Maestro
NEW YORK CITY / FEBRUARY, 2017