Steve Earle on Jerry Jeff Walker, Country Music, Nashville

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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

Many of his current stories revolve around 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 27 on New West Records) is the latest covers album in a series that also includes his other mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, as well as last year’s tribute to his late son, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle. JerryJeff also stands out as one of his most immediate and entertaining LPs. It feels particularly welcoming to newcomers to both Walker and Earle, even as it marks the end of an era. “I hope I don’t have to do any more tribute records,” says Earle, who is currently working on a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1983 film Tender Mercy. “The thing with Justin, that happened and it was the only thing I could do. I’m ready to start recording my own songs again.”

Tell me a little 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 high school biology teacher wanted me to say “Mr. Bojangles” in a school production. I knew these records before Jerry Jeff came to Texas to live and wear a cowboy hat. I wanted to be Jerry Jeff Walker more than anything in the world for several years.

The songs you chose for Jerry Jeff feel like a nice connection between Walker’s early Greenwich Village folk era and “Mr. Bojangles” and Viva Terlingua and the Texas Outlaw Country, which he later did.
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 in bars. Just when I was old enough to play in a bar, I played “Charlie Dunn”. my band [the Dukes] I grew up with this stuff too.

I was sad you didn’t record it”piss in the wind‘ on the record.
I don’t want to criticize that. But I think that’s why I put the songs that I did on the record because I don’t want people to think that Jerry Jeff Walker is about pissin’ in the wind.

“Mr. Bojangles” is the Jerry Jeff Walker song that most people have probably heard of. How did you go about covering such a popular and often 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 kinda hard to screw up. I looked halfway up and every cell phone on the balcony was lit and when I finished the ground floor was lit too. It’s just such a song.

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

I just got lucky. I had good teachers. But I consciously took advantage of that. I am not shy. I followed these guys. [Laughs] I was a pain in the ass, no doubt about that. But they were also generous, these three guys. Townes was probably harder on me than anyone because he was pretty hard on everyone. It might be Jerry Jeff, but he’s always been pretty nice to me.

I need to hear more about the time when 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 now and then to record. He was at a point where he could no longer afford to be stopped in Nashville. So he would come and get me to ride for him, which may or may not have been wise. But I didn’t have that many dents on my driver’s 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, never mind, it’s Jerry Jeff Walker. I got in the car. And I didn’t know who Neil was until we got to Spence Manor. It turned out to be Neil Young.

Walker didn’t want me to play any of my songs. He wanted me to play a David Olney song called “Illegal Cargo”. Because he knew I knew, 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 react?
He liked “Illegal Cargo” and I think I played some stuff later. But what I remember is growing up there playing 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 latest book Big labels, are considered an example of a country singer-songwriter who found success without country radio. Have you ever signed up to country radio today, even just out of curiosity?
no I didn’t listen to it at the time unless I had to. I grew up in a place of good rock ‘n’ roll and good country music. I didn’t like the dividing lines between different genres of music at all. I always thought they were in the way.

When I did that, I intentionally made a country record guitar city. Before that, I only took money under false pretenses. We all were. We wanted to be singer-songwriters. The genre didn’t really interest us. We were interested in making great albums with our own music. But people would pay us to be songwriters. Bob Beckham knew that if you wanted to get Help Me Make It Through the Night, you had to have Kris Kristofferson write the The Silver Tongued Devil and I demo. There are some people like that.

I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to tell you that what’s on country radio right now isn’t country because it’s not true. It’s country because that’s what’s on country radio. There’s a lot of people making records in Nashville who blame me for what they’re doing. Some people complain that I’m the reason the drums are too damn loud. I was the first to do that. Someone asked me about country music and I said as far as I can tell it’s hip hop for people who are afraid of black people. I didn’t mean that in a derogatory way. I just meant it arrived the same way.

You have a son on the autism spectrum. I’m also in the spectrumand i know that you do annual benefit show for the New York Keswell School. How do you deal with speaking and advocating about autism in the music industry?
It’s tough. In this world I live in, our mantra is you know a person with autism, you know a person with autism. It’s all different.

I’ve been asked the same question when it comes to political music. I’m not a political songwriter. I write more songs about girls than anything else. I just grew up in a time when you write about everything that 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 special kind of school. John Henry [Earle’s son] has severe autism. He’s nonverbal and he doesn’t speak. He learns everything, but he learns it very slowly. He has to be in the environment he is in. That’s not for everyone with autism. But for people like John Henry, I believe what he needs is what he gets. The student is always one on one with someone who knows what the hell they’re doing, not babysitters.

The stereotype of people with autism that infuriates me is that they lack empathy. That’s just nonsense. It’s just not true. And no one has ever proven that. I’m pretty sure the person who said that was the reason we don’t say Asperger’s anymore. Hans Asperger was a Nazi doctor who experimented on children with disabilities. He defined what we now call the spectrum, the beginnings of it. If you could talk, you had Asperger’s for years. If you couldn’t, you had autism. Now everything is autism. I’m pretty sure Asperger’s got the idea that they aren’t empathic because they don’t respond to stimuli the way other people do. It’s just different. And who knows why? We do not know it. We know it’s an epidemic. We know it’s not a vaccine. [Laughs] That’s the only thing we could rule out because this guy lost his medical license.

But it’s one of those things – I’m not trying to tell other people what to do. I do what I do for a reason, the same reason Neil did what he did with the Bridge School. I have skin in it. The political stuff is a little different. This is just trying not to go to hell. I make an embarrassing amount of money for a frontier Marxist doing something I really love. [Laughs] So I feel like every now and then I have to try to give something back.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity. Steve Earle on Jerry Jeff Walker, Country Music, Nashville

Lindsay Lowe

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