Steve Earle is a rock/country/folk singer-songwriter. His latest album, Steve Earle & The Dukes‘ GUY, was released March 2019.
(Photo Credit: Tom Bejgrowicz)
Steve Earle and Will Beeley both got their starts playing small clubs in Texas, with Beeley coming up a few years ahead of Earle. Earle’s music career flowered while Beeley hung up his guitar after two albums, eventually becoming a long-haul truck driver. But a call from Tompkins Square ended up reigniting Beeley’s career; they reissued his two albums and convinced him to record another, Highways & Heart Attacks. Earle was excited to catch up with his old friend in this intimate chat.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Steve Earle: It’s been a lot of years since we talked.
Will Beeley: Yeah. You were running that joint with the poker game in the back in San Antonio, and I barely survived playing there with a rockabilly band. I just want you to know that “Nothin’ But You” is still one of my all-time favorite songs.
Steve: That’s Bob Dylan’s favorite Steve song.
Will: I’ll be damned.
Steve: He actually plays that song. I toured with him in ’89. He’d open with “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way” every night, but one night they opened with “Subterranean,” so we all hit the deck because he hadn’t played that yet. The second song was “Nothin’ But You. They did it two or three times on the tour. It was a trip… You were the first guy that I ever met that had ever been to Nashville. I remember when I met you, I think you’d just been to Nashville. I knew you had a new Grammer guitar. You were managing a guy that was running for city council. What was that guy’s name?
Will: Greg Davenport.
Steve: You guys are all in this book I’m writing. There’s a whole thing about the Gatehouse, including the night you told me that I needed to go back and finish school before I could play there again. So I took that to heart and I dropped out the next day. You said to come back when I was out of school so I dropped out of high school the next day.
Will: That’s great advice. It turned out well for you.
Steve: Yeah, it turned out pretty good. There’s a lot of characters there, man. It was a trip.
Will: You’ve got a good memory.
Steve: I was always about detail and a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. I’ve learned to do the other thing, but it’s by rote. So, I’m glad you decided to make a record again.
Will: Well, it was kind of a strange deal. Gallivantin’ and Passing Dream had been out for 40 years. I got a letter from Josh Rosenthal, the guy that owns Tompkins Square and asked if I was the Will that did those two albums. It was more like, “Are you still alive?” kind of letter. He said, “Have you ever thought about reissuing those?” I don’t know if anybody would even listen to them. And so he reissued them in ’17. Then I drug out some half-finished songs, and I put kind of a rough demo together and sent it to him. He said, “Have you ever thought about going back in the studio?” When I sent them, I told my wife, I said, “It’d be kind of a hoot to go back in the studio one more time.” Kind of a bucket list kind of thing.
Anyway, to make a long story monotonous, Josh asked me if I wanted to do another album and I said, “Man, have you listened to my voice?” He said, “I like it.” So, went down to San Antonio. We got some great players and all these guys are about the same age as most of those songs that I’ve recorded. I was real surprised that they did well on that stuff as well as they did. Highways & Heart Attacks, about half of it I wrote as a follow-up to Passing Dream. So that’s where all that stuff came from. Then the other half is stuff that I had written since then.
Steve: Being a singer-songwriter in general right now I think is like being a bluegrass musician or a jazz musician used to be. It’s a conscious decision to do something where you’re not going to get rich but you can make a living at it. I didn’t know what to tell Justin [Townes Earle] by the time he started doing this because the business had changed so much. We lived off of all the excess money from a very wealthy music business. David Geffen didn’t give a fuck about Tom Waits, he just didn’t want anybody else to have him because it made him look cool. He wasn’t trying to sell any more Tom Waits records than Waits was going to sell anyway. I was lucky in that I always knew that and I was always grateful for it.
You fund art however you can fund art. This job that we do, Bob Dylan invented it and then immediately sucked all of the air out of the room. The rest of us had been fucking struggling with that ever since. It’s a tough way to go when you get down to it, to go out and, on purpose, write songs in this archaic format that, and that’s what we do.
Will: Wow! I’ve never heard it explained like that. That nails it down. That’s too much, man.
Steve: Do you remember Mark Johnson? Do you remember that guy? I think he was from Houston. He was the one that told me, after you 86ed me, that I could go play the coffeehouse at Fort Sam. I got involved with all these serious anti-war activists that were in the army after that. That’s how I ended up singing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” on a flatbed truck in front of the Alamo. My dad, who’s an air traffic controller, who worked for the government got in trouble at work. It was an interesting little crucible being in the military vortex that was San Antonio during the Vietnam War. That’s where I grew up and what I grew up in. Remember those guys that used to come down there? We used to get service guys in there all the time. The ones that were Army were going to Vietnam. The ones that were Air Force were probably going to Thailand because that’s where the Air Force was in Southeast Asia. You could tell they were just out trying to find hippie girls before they went into the war. I recently got back in touch with a guy named Allen Dawson, who was incredible. He had the first slot-head, brand new D-35S. It was the first slot-head Martin dreadnought I ever saw. He had that guitar. He was in the army at Fort Sam. He was from Chicago. I first heard about John Prine from him and then within a few weeks, John Prine’s first record came out.
Will: Yeah. I got my start playing over at Doogie’s. Remember Doogie’s over by San Antonio College?
Steve: I heard about it, but that was a little before my time.
Will: That’s where I saw Townes. This is long before he was Townes Van Zandt. He’s just a guy going through it. And that’s what gave me the spark to want to play was, “Wow! This guy can make a living.”
Steve: I’m reasonably sure I first heard about Townes from you. The first record I saw was The Late Great. Then, I backtracked to the ’68 and ’69 records but I heard about him and then I saw his record in the record store in San Antonio. I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that he was any less famous than Bob Dylan. His record was in the same record store and was a long time before I figured out that there was different levels of that, you know? I think I had to hitchhike to Nashville to actually realize that. I got there in a moment when inmates sort of had control of the asylum for just a second because Willie had moved back to Texas. Waylon had stayed there. There was just records being made that were actually selling. Waylon was one of the first guys to play arenas, which hadn’t happened before.
I got there in November of ’74. I met Billy Joe [Shaver], I’d been in Nashville maybe a week and he was back and forth like he always was between Nashville and Texas. I witnessed maybe his third LSD trip and I definitely witnessed his last one. He discovered it pretty late. He took some blotter that had some purple dye on it and just as he was getting off, he went in the bathroom at the Exit/In and noticed his tongue had turned a dark color and he thought he was turning into a chow dog, he said, so he never took it again. He’d seen Guy Clark’s face melt and ducks flying through the windshield of his truck. None of that bothered him in the least bit but when his tongue turned black, he never took LSD again.
Will: That was it. I used to have him at that club in San Antonio about, oh, about every six, eight weeks, he’d come through and play and…
Steve: Oh, that dance hall out there that you were managing?
Will: Well, I was buying the talent for it. I wasn’t manager. We had some interesting people come through there. Gary P. Nunn, Rusty Weir, that whole Lost Gonzo Band bunch. Bob Livingston and Herbie Steiner and all those.
Steve: Yeah. I knew all those guys really well, just because I crashed Jerry Jeff Walker’s 33rd birthday party when I was 16 or 17. I hitchhiked up to Austin because Jerry was playing his birthday at Castle Creek. I just sat in the corner with my hat pulled down over my eyes. The guitar went around and I didn’t dare step up because I was afraid somebody’d figure out I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d been there two hours or so. Rusty Weir was there. B. W. Stevenson was there. Milton Carroll was there. About two hours after I got there, here comes Townes with this beautiful girl on his arm and this gorgeous, almost white buckskin jacket. It turned out Jerry Jeff [Walker] had given it to him off of his back a few weeks earlier on his birthday. So, Townes stayed for a minute. He never touched a guitar. He talked to people for a minute. He’d sit there and listen. Then he started a dice game and lost every dime he had and the fucking jacket and then he left. I went, “Oh, my hero.” That’s how I started following Townes in Texas and ended up over in Houston.
Will: Wow! Yeah. That was an interesting time period, man. It was pretty cool. I never fit in with the Austin crowd, I guess because I lived in San Antonio and if you didn’t live in Austin and you weren’t from Austin or playing there on a regular basis, you weren’t anything. I was able to play The Old Quarter couple, which was pretty cool. I got to play Jackson Public a couple of times.
Steve: And the first time I played there, Rex Bell and Dale’s dog decided to fall in love right in front of the fucking stage in the middle of my show, completely upstaged me. Somebody brought in another dog and there they went. The owners of the club are behind the bar cheering them along so I just kind of had to stand there until the act was realized and then I finished my set.
Will: Fuck! That’s funny.
Steve: That’s where I actually was introduced to Townes. There’s a story I’m sure you’ve probably heard about him coming in. He sat right in front of the stage. He looked into every song I played and never made a sound. There’s six people there. He never made a sound when I was playing but in between every song, he’s say, “Play ‘The Wabash Cannonball,’” at the top of his lungs. I’m like, “Shit. I’m being heckled by my hero. Great.” Finally I just said, “Man, I don’t know ‘The Wabash Cannonball’,” and I didn’t. He’d sit there kind of dumbfounded for a second. Then he goes, “You call yourself a folk singer and you don’t know ‘The Wabash Cannonball?’” So, I played “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold,” that song of his that has the bazillion words and I did it absolutely perfect. Bam, bam, bam, and he shut up. Then later on, up on the roof, he started talking to me. That’s how I got to meet Townes Van Zandt. So, that happened at The Old Quarter for sure. That’s in the book, too.
Will: When’s your book coming out?
Steve: Well, it’s supposed to have been out about three years ago, four years ago. It’s kind of become my day job for the next several months. I’ve kind of changed my life a little bit. I got a little boy that has autism. He’s nine. My kids are 37, 31, and 9, and three different moms. But this little guy has autism. He doesn’t speak. He’s really musical but he doesn’t talk. There’s services that exist in New York City where he was born that don’t exist in Tennessee where his mother lives. So we came to here and he’s starting to get kind of big at nine. All my boys, Justin’s 6’4″ and my middle boy, Ian, he lives in Texas, is 6’4″. Nine months of the year, I’m just doing weekends and the cruises and kind of one-offs like that and I’ll tour all summer and he’ll go to his mom’s in the summertime. That’s the new plan we just started. So that’s what I’m doing. Are you in New Mexico?
Will: That’s where we live, yeah. We live a little town outside of Albuquerque.
Steve: Cool. Well, I get that way once in a while. I actually learned to fish with a fly rod in Taos of all places. What’s that theater down town in Albuquerque? That place is great. Please holler if we’re anywhere near each other.
Steve’s latest album is GUY is available on New West.
(Photo Credit: left, Tom Bejgrowicz; right, Jesse Fisher)