Interview: On ‘Guy’, Steve Earle Channels a Hero and Friend
At the outset of Steve Earle's career, he wouldn't have guessed that he would one day have made not one, but two tribute albums in honor of his mentors, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. He wasn't sure he'd ever accumulate enough of an audience to keep his own musical legacy alive, much less anyone else's.
"I don't think that even occurred to me until the '80s. Because it took so long for me to get a record deal that I didn't know whether I was ever gonna be able to turn anybody on to anything," Earle explains to The Boot. "But by the time I started making records, and my own audience was a little bigger than Townes' or Guy's was, I started beating that drum about both of them. Largely Townes at first, because he was way more overlooked than Guy was, at that point."
Earle released Townes, a tribute project dedicated to Van Zandt, in 2009. Now, a decade later, he shares Guy, which focuses on Clark's body of work.
In a way, Earle says that he knew he would have to make Guy as soon as he set about making Townes. "I recorded [the second album] largely because I do not want to run into them on the other side having made the Townes record and not having made the Guy record. There's that," he jokes. "But they were arrived at very differently."
The relationship that Clark had with each mentor was different. As a young artist, he met Van Zandt first, when the latter was a singing troubadour floating around Texas. As his career intensified, though, Earle moved to Nashville, where Clark's structured and hard-working approach to his craft taught him a new side of the songwriting business.
"He left a great body of work, because he worked almost until the very end," Earle explains. "That's one of the things I learned from him and [his wife, fellow singer-songwriter] Susanna [Clark], is that these things that artists call 'disciplines' are called that for a reason. You have to work at it, and Guy worked. He worked really hard."
Although Clark's songwriting legacy is well recognized, Earle knows it's not out of the realm of possibility that his new album will introduce some listeners to its namesake for the first time. There were a few tracks, such as "Heartbroke" and "Out in the Parking Lot," that he picked because he saw them as definitive tracks. However, that thought didn't dominate the song selection process; more often, he opted to record the tracks that had the most personal meaning to him.
"When I sing somebody else's songs, I've got to find a way to get that connection to it. That means they need to be the things that I understand the most, that mean the most to me," Earle goes on to say. "Your job is empathy, being a singer-songwriter. People don't care what happened to me; they care what happened to me that they can relate to, that they can find some common experience between my life and their lives. And so, for me to get inside someone else's song, it has to be one that I have a strong connection to."
Clark's body of work offers no shortage of such songs. Because of the two artists' longstanding friendship, Earle was literally connected to many of the tracks Clark recorded. "Either I was around when it was written or was playing it in his band, when I was in his band," he recalls, adding that his relationship with other songs even predated his relationship with the artist: ""LA Freeway," "Desperados Waiting for a Train," "That Old Time Feeling" -- I knew those songs before I even met Guy. I played those songs in my set before I moved to Nashville."
It was also that close connection that allowed Earle to cut versions of the songs that were so close to their original recordings. "The versions are very close to [Clark]'s own versions, or as close as I can, when it gets right down to it," he says. "You know, I heard the [Jerry] Jeff Walker version of "LA Freeway" first, but my version is Guy's first, and pretty much the arrangement is note for note the way he played it. And I know how he played it, because I sat across the room from him watching him play it.
"I can't separate myself from Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. I've never been able to," Earle points out. "That's enough reason for me to make these records as it is, just to keep going through the ongoing process of figuring out who I am as an artist."
"For me to get inside someone else's song, it has to be one that I have a strong connection to."
Earle doesn't have to worry about bumping into his heroes in the afterlife without having released an album for each of them anymore, although he will have to contend with whatever their thoughts on the projects might be. In terms of critiquing his work, however, he says that both Van Zandt and Clark were always pretty succinct.
"Townes, he wouldn't give me any advice one way or the other. He'd just give me a book and tell me to go read it," Earle says dryly. "A critique from Guy Clark was always the same, whether it was good or bad. It was either, 'Good work,' or, 'Needs work.' Always one of the two."
Here in the land of the living, Earle has already tried out his new batch of songs on some audiences. "I mean, it's emotional," he says of the experience of performing Clark's music. "We played all these songs for the first time in front of an audience at the Outlaw Country Cruise. The one thing I figured out real quickly, and shared with the audience, is, 'Okay, here's what's gonna be the problem with this tour, is to get through it without crying.'"
Still, even though the process of making Guy is over, Earle can't imagine an end to his relationship with his musical mentor -- not even years after Clark's death.
"I don't know if that could be. I don't think there ever will be an end to my relationship with Guy, or Townes. You know, until I'm gone," he says. "And I'm not even so sure about then."
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