Bleak only begins to describe the landscape throughout Steve Earles latest album, The Low Highway. Most of the characters in Earles vivid stories are powerless, desperate and hopeless. Thats just the way I see things right now, Earle said while calling from Portland, Maine. I think times are really hard. Not even a young Bob Dylan lived through what were going through now. I think you have to go back to what Woody Guthrie wrote about back in his days when things were really bad to compare to whats happening now. Thats a long time ago. But things are as bad as they were in the 30s. Im writing about people I see on the road and in the news. Its really hard to get jobs. Its difficult for those who are not rich.
Earle, 58, has always told it like he sees it in his records or during interviews. During the mid-90s, Earle was asked to name his favorite Spice Girl and he cheekily replied Liam Gallagher, of Oasis fame.
I hate Oasis, Earle said while venturing down memory lane. I always thought (Oasis bitter rival) Blur was much better than Oasis.
Earle has been a rock/country maverick for more than a quarter century. He is an artist who is difficult to pigeonhole, straddling the line between rootsy rocker and outlaw country artist since the 80s.
Those labels never meant anything, Earle said. Its about music. Its about writing the best songs that you can write.
Earle has been remarkably consistent over the years. His tunes are revealing, provocative and intelligent, and each of his 15 albums stands on its own.
I tried not to repeat myself, Earle said. I cant think of anything less interesting than making the same album twice.
His extensive catalog also makes it more difficult for him to come up with set lists.
I have so many songs now that when I play out, Im always going to disappoint somebody because I cant play all of my songs, Earle said. But thats a good problem to have. I try not to tick off people by not playing the songs they want to hear, but thats just part of how it goes for me. I hope people are happy at my shows. I dont want them to get depressed by the new material either. The new songs might be down, but I want people to know that Im actually an optimist.
That optimistic nature is evidenced in his personal life. Earle, who could be considered the Larry King of musicians, has been married seven times. That number is not lost on his son, Justin Townes Earle, a terrific singer-songwriter in his own right.
You know hes the last person I would take advice from about relationships, Justin cracks while calling from his Nashville home. I dont know what to say about my dad and love, but I dont want to get married seven times. But when youre talking about music, Ill always have respect for him. When I was growing up, I remember putting on his first couple of records. Guitar Town is my favorite. That album had a huge impact on me.
Earle is pleased that his son is a critically acclaimed musician like himself.
Im very proud of him, Earle said. Hes not only very talented but he works hard. Hes done very well for himself.
The elder Earle hopes to move in another direction with his next album.
I think Im going to go the blues route, Earle said. Everything points to that. It doesnt matter what I do as long as the songs are good. I dont care about the genre. I just want to make the best record I can make. Thats what Ive done every since I started out doing this. I cant change now.