THERE’S a little corner of northern New South Wales that really floats Steve Earle’s boat, and given his country-rock pedigree, it’s perhaps surprising it’s not Tamworth.
Luckily for music lovers it’s also the location of one of the world’s premier blues and roots festivals: Bluesfest.
“Byron: it might be the best beach town in the world,” Earle says. “It’s my favourite, anyway. I’ve had some really good shows there over the years; the last few years particularly. I had a really good show there with the band on the last tour, and I had a really, really good solo show there on the trip before that. I got to ride back to town with John Paul Jones and Donovan in the same car, you know? I got to interrogate them about all those great records, because Jones played on all those great Donovan records, so that was pretty cool. [Bluesfest is] one of my favourite festivals, period. The other big blues festival I play is in Ottawa, but it doesn’t have that beach.”
The 61 year-old Texan released his sixteenth studio album, the bluesy Terraplane, last year, and is set to appear at the Easter weekend festival with his band The Dukes alongside similarly-billed legends Brian Wilson, Tom Jones and Taj Mahal.
“I don’t know [if I’m a legend]; I’m more of a rumour,” he laughs. “It’s weird. It’s the thirtieth anniversary of Guitar Town this year. We’re going to try to do a few things to commemorate it. The Australian tour is actually the last leg of the cycle we have been on all of 2015; the very last leg of the Terraplane tour. I’ve already recorded the record with Shawn Colvin, and that’s what I’ll be doing next summer. Then I’m going to make another record with The Dukes, which will come out in 2017. I decided I was going to make a blues record [with Terraplane], but it’s a big deal when you’re from Texas; it’s a high bar. So I decided my next record was going to be a country record, whatever that means. Sometimes I think it means what I might have done after Guitar Town if [producer] Jimmy Bowen hadn’t pissed me off, but mainly it’s going to be based on honky-tonk. I’ve been putting aside the country-er things for that.”
Terraplane came into existence just as Earle was going through his seventh divorce, resulting in an album that was not only steeped deeply in the blues, but intensely personal at the same time.
“I don’t know how cathartic [writing] it was,” he says. “At the time, they were the only songs I could write. You know, I’m not writing jingles. I mean, I can write projects; I can write for somebody else, for a television show, or for a movie, and put myself in a certain place. This was a very personal record, because there wasn’t much else I could do. It might be I made a blues record because it was the only type of record I could have made last year.”
Having survived major drug and alcohol problems in the 80s and early 90s, Earle is now able to help others in a similar position, but does admit to being suspicious of why his past addictions are still interesting to people.
“I’m doing this residency at clubs in the States right now,” he says. “I’m doing a song from every record I ever made. There’s only four of those records that I was taking drugs when I made them. So it seems silly to be talking about it now. It’s still a big part of who I am; right now I’m writing a memoir, so I’m right back into that shit again. I have no problem with talking about it if it’s going to help somebody, but I get tired of talking about it with people who I suspect don’t have any other reason for talking about it except the lowest common denominator reasons. That part of it gets on my nerves from time to time.”
When not writing top-notch blues and country songs or warding off questions about his past, Earle is heavily involved in political activism. He is vigorously opposed to the death penalty, has argued in favour of access to abortions for all women, and his most recent work has been both close to home and on a national level.
“I’ve been raising awareness for schools with autism, because I have a son with autism,” he says. “Politics gets personal sometimes. My son gets the best care we can get him, but I have to lawyer up to get it. Luckily, the law says the city has to help me and my neighbours’ tax dollars have to help me. I’m the poorest guy in New York City, I think. Manhattan, anyway. I live here by the skin of my teeth, so I can’t imagine what happens to people who have regular jobs and four or five kids. I’m also very actively supporting Bernie Sanders’ campaign; ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ plays at almost all of Bernie Sanders’ rallies, and I’m very proud of that. I’m a socialist and he is a socialist. Normally if there’s one thing I can do for a political candidate I want to see elected, it is to stay as far the fuck away from them as possible. In the case of Obama I was able to say in the second term that I was a socialist and Obama definitely wasn’t. Hillary [Clinton] is, left to her own devices, almost a Republican. She’s very much a creature of Wall Street. I’m having the luxury of having a viable candidate running right now, and that’s Bernie Sanders.”
Away from the concerns of national politics, time spent in the southern hemisphere will not only allow Earle to rekindle his love for Australian beaches, but also his fondness for our musicians.
“It’s where I met Kasey Chambers,” he says. “I was there with Buddy Miller and my band, and Buddy was also opening our shows. Julie Miller didn’t make the trip, and Kasey, when she was 18 years old, sang with Buddy on that tour. On a bill before that, I saw a great show by The Saints there, although the first time I saw The Saints was at the Cat Club in New York years before, but I saw a great Saints show ten or twelve years ago in Byron. I’ve known Paul Kelly since before I even went to Australia for the first time; I met him in ’86 when he was [in the States]. That’s one of my favourite things about Bluesfest; you get to see a lot of good music, as you get to play twice.”
STEVE EARLE PLAYS BYRON BAY BLUESFEST MARCH 25TH AND 26TH