Steve Earle lives in New York City now. This fact is made clear on “Tennessee Blues,” the first track on his new CD, Washington Square Serenade. The striking thing is, Earle didn’t write the song with a kiss-off melody. Instead, it’s one of the most elegant and understated songs in his catalog.
“It’s about a change,” he says, on the phone during a visit to Nashville. “There are people who think that after Guitar Town, I should have never made another record. And there are people who never heard that record who think my first record is Copperhead Road. I’ve been pretty welcoming to those people, but the people I make records for are the people who have bought every record and allowed me to do whatever the next thing was, whether it was a bluegrass record or a rock record. This record is basically a folk record arrived at by hip-hop rules.”
The “folk record” reference is easy to figure out. “Tennessee Blues” relies on an easygoing finger-picking guitar line to help tell the tale of a couple in love leaving Tennessee for a new city. Plus, take into account that Earle and his wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, live on the same street where the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was shot. Earle also likes to kill time at the famous guitar shop around the corner, where he frequently runs into people who played on the albums he grew up listening to.
The “hip-hop” reference is harder to figure out. Asked for a clarification, Earle says, “I needed a little intimacy, so I started out recording some of it myself in my apartment over beats. I was able to realize, ’Oh, there’s a verse and a chorus.’ But in ProTools, which I was learning as I went along, I found, ’Oh, I can move the chorus. I can pick the whole thing up and move it.’ You can do on tape, but it’s really hard.”
Every song on the new CD begins with guitar, vocals and beats he recorded alone in the apartment. With a deadpan delivery, he says, “It was a matter of time before I tested positive for ProTools, and I finally did.”
Earle’s first apartment in New York City was rented for him by his record label in 2004, so he could do press and radio to promote The Revolution Starts Now. He was hooked. In May 2005, he and Moorer left Nashville and rented an apartment in Greenwich Village. They officially moved in after spending the summer in Barcelona, Spain.
“I don’t think anybody that knows me was surprised. The idea of me living in New York City is not that incongruous. There were people who were bummed about it, but I was gone most of the time anyway,” he says. “Look, Tennessee is a beautiful place, and I can’t complain. I have a career because I came here, but it wasn’t easy. I never complained about it that much. Whether or not the country music establishment is in touch with the roots of country music is not my idea of a political issue. And it never was.”
Even though he honed his craft in Nashville from two revered songwriters — Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt — Earle says he felt like he was living in the margins.
“I never fooled myself into thinking this was a singer-songwriter town,” he explains. “They had a singer-songwriter here, and his name was Hank Williams, and they decided they didn’t like that very much. People like that were too hard to control. It’s always been kind of [opposed to] the entire idea of artists writing their own material. And I know that. I’ve been here since I was 19 years old. I know that. It’s not like I expected it to become anything else because of me. But I was taught by people that I could live here and make a living and use the infrastructure and get a song recorded every once in a while. And I got really lucky and got a record deal and it started a career for me.”
Guitar Town was released in 1986 when Earle was 31. The music was rough around the edges for mid-1980s country, and so was Earle. Critics went crazy for it, and the title track hit the Top 10 at country radio. In 1989, he found rock success with “Copperhead Road.” After a serious battle with cocaine and heroin, Earle re-emerged in the mid-’90s with a series of eloquent albums before whacking a political hornet’s nest with The Revolution Starts Now. To this day, nearly every rugged songwriter with a Nashville connection is compared to Earle in reviews and press materials.
“I don’t know why anybody in Nashville would ever want to do that,” he says. “I think the first person that ever walked up to me and told me they moved to Nashville because they heard Guitar Town was Garth Brooks, which freaks me the f**k out. You know, I have felt really bad when people tell me that. I had been here for almost 13 years when I was making Guitar Town. I was doing it with my eyes wide open, and the idea of a kid coming here and thinking that meant that the door was open bums me out.”
He says the recent political climate made him consider living outside the U.S., but ultimately realized he could find comfort in the diversity of New York City.
“When I lived in Nashville full time, I’d go crazy after three weeks, being trapped in my car and having to drive everywhere,” he says. “But in New York, I don’t mind being in a three or four-block area because the whole world’s there. I very rarely travel more than a mile from my house, but within that mile, I can see any movie or buy any book. For two dollars, I can begin a journey to anywhere in the world. The world kind of comes to you in New York.”