“I’m a radical motherfucker,” Steve Earle recently told the audience at The Birchmere, referring to his well-known socialist beliefs. “But we’ve lost the ability to talk to each other.”
For democracy to work, he said, we have to be able to have conversations with people we don’t agree with from the start.
The impulse to start a conversation lay at the heart of Earle’s last set of original songs, 2020’s Ghost of West Virginia. The album collects songs he wrote to accompany the play Coal Country, which deals with the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that took place on April 5, 2010. As Earle explained at The Birchmere, it was the worst mining accident in the United States since the 1970s, resulting in the death of 29 miners. It was not a coincidence, Steve argued, that this was the first non-union mine in West Virginia.
“That’s what unions do,” he said. “They protect people.” While he’s an ardent environmentalist, he believes that “as long as we’re sending people down there, they ought to be protected.”
At The Birchmere on August 23, Earle also argued that West Virginia is not a red state but a “coal state.” “They have a Democratic senator,” he said, referring to Joe Manchin. “He’s an asshole,” Steve added, “but he’s a Democrat.” I’ve heard him talk about why the state voted so heavily for Donald Trump: because he promised to protect the jobs of coal miners. It’s a falsehood that people vote their pocketbooks. “The rich vote their pocketbooks,” but the working class votes for “its heart and its livelihood,” he said.
Because he released it in the early months of the Covid pandemic, Earle was unable to immediately tour about behind the record. “Nobody heard it,” he said, echoing a common sentiment for musicians who had releases at that time. That’s a shame, because it’s strongest work in the last 20 years, going back to 2000’s Transcendental Blues. Introducing “It’s About Blood,” he talked about one miner in particular: Tommy Davis, who lost his first-born son, nephew, and brother in the disaster. If you were watching the news coverage of the disaster, Earle said, you might’ve seen Tommy interviewed. “Tommy was angry,” he said. “Tommy wanted answers.”
Stream “It’s About Blood” by Steve Earle on YouTube:
“It’s About Blood” is Earle at his best: fiery, defiant, and passionate. Steve is known as an intense guy, and it’s both a gift and a curse: it powers his writing and his performance, giving it the bite that captivates the audience. But it’s also not something he can ever fully suppress; my sense is he works hard at presenting a version of himself that people can be more comfortable with. People who think that Steve is “raw” and perceive this as authenticity are wrong: the version of Steve we’re seeing as he approaches 70 is as deliberately crafted as anything, and he’s sanded off a lot of the rougher edges.
Introducing “Sparkle and Shine,” Steve copped that he was not above repurposing a song written for one girl for another. People have argued, he said, about who he wrote certain songs for.” In the end, he said, “They’re all about me.” I realized the depth of this statement, hearing it last night, in a way hadn’t before. I interviewed Steve in 2022, and he gave me a piece of advice that ranks as one of the best I’ve ever received: “No one gives a fuck about you,” he said. “People care about what they can relate to.”
It might seem like his admission that the songs are about himself contradicts this bit of wisdom, but it doesn’t. I’ve come to realize writing is in some sense always about the writer. Even when you’re not a character and when you’re not writing about real people or events in your life, everything you write is fundamentally about you, about the choices you make of how to express yourself. Inserting yourself as a character can even be overkill, because you’re already in the story, even when you’re not in the story.
“Some girls are better for songs than others,” Steve told the audience. “It has nothing to do with the quality of the girl.” Both “Now She’s Gone” and “Goodbye,” he said, were written about the same girl, who he declined to name. “This goes out to what’s her name, wherever the hell she is,” he said. His statement here did contradict a theory I’d heard about “Goodbye,” that he actually about junk and not a woman.
Wednesday night’s show started a little differently than most of Steve’s performances. He began with a cover of the Pogues “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.” “I consider Shane McGowan (lead singer and songwriter for the Pogues) one of the greatest songwriters ever to walk the Earth.” He admitted, “No one can understand Shane,” and said he hopes that, by playing the song, he’ll get more people to understand it. He segued effortlessly into “The Devil’s Right Hand,” saying he wished he could get more people to understand that song. While he didn’t originally write it to take a stand on gun control — it was just a folk song about a juvenile delinquent in the 19th Century — the song has come to take on that dimension over the years.
In the early part of the set, Earle played a number of his biggest songs from early in his career. “My Old Friend the Blues,” he said, was late Birchmere owner Gary Oelze’s favorite song of his. “Someday” and “Guitar Town” are both from his first album, too. When he released and toured behind that album, he said, he played the old 9:30 Club and the old Birchmere on back-to-back nights.
Stream “My Old Friend The Blues” by Steve Earle on YouTube:
For the people in Maryland, he admitted that he’d mispronounced Taneywon. “I know way too much about the Civil War,” he said, explaining he found it on a map near Gettysburg. The “chick song” portion of the night was up next — “Now She’s Gone,” “Goodbye,” and “Sparkle and Shine.” “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had,” he said, was just another way to get the same place, by way of the blues.
If you know anything about Steve, you probably know that he had a serious drug problem. He did some time in the ’90s, and it was then that he got himself into rehab. For 28 years he’s been sober. The problem with “South Nashville Blues,” he said, is that it “makes my life sound like was way more fucking fun that it was.” I can see that, as it’s a jaunty song. To counter this perception, and probably for himself as well, he follows that song with “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain” (“CCKMP”). “Welcome to my nightmare,” he said.
Speaking of nightmares, Steve lost his oldest son, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, three years ago to a fentanyl overdose. Justin, he explained, didn’t do opiates; the fentanyl had been mixed into an eight ball of cocaine. He warned the audience that the stuff is out there, and it’s in everything. (I learned my lesson about being appropriately cautious with drugs many years ago, when a housemate gave me a joint that had been mixed with tobacco, which my body can’t handle. I ended up getting pneumonia, and it taught me that you have to be really careful about these things.) He quoted Ram Das as saying “My pain is his legacy.” He disagrees with the old chestnut that no parent should have to bury a child, saying it happens every day. A few months after Justin’s passing, he recorded an LP of his songs that included “Harlem River Blues,” which he sang Wednesday.
Earle’s most recent release, Jerry Jeff, was made in tribute to the late Jerry Jeff Walker. Steve cites three men as his teachers: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff. He’s made an album of each of their songs; the first, Townes, won the 2009 Grammy for Best Folk Album. He started playing Jerry Jeff’s most well-known song, “Mr. Bojangles,” at 14, as part of a play he was cast during his short stint in high school before he dropped out. At 19, he met Jerry Jeff, and he had to stop playing that song. Part of the joy of recording the Jerry Jeff album was getting to sing it again.
This set had many of my favorite songs of Steve’s: in the main set, he played “Transcendental Blues,” “I Ain’t Eve Satisfied,” and “Feel Alright,” finishing on mandolin with “The Galway Girl” and “Copperhead Road,” and other songs included “Angel Is The Devil” and “Tell Moses,” which he recorded with Shawn Colvin.
Stream “Tell Moses” by Colvin & Earle on YouTube:
When he came out for his encore, Steve talked about the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America, and he said that the best writing being done right now is for TV. He’s done some acting, most notably in two series created by David Simon, The Wire and Treme. In both, he plays versions of himself: his character in The Wire, Waylon, he described as a redneck recovering drug addict, and he plays a musician who mentors one of the central characters in the first two seasons of Treme. In addition to his role in the fifth and final season of the Wire, he also recorded that season’s version of the opening theme, Tom Waits’s “Way Down In The Hole.” Waits, he said, told him his version was the favorite of the five the show used.
To close the evening, Steve played one of his own songs, “Hardcore Troubadour,” which is sort of a companion to “Feel Alright.”
Before Steve’s set, Irish singer-songwriter Danny Burns played a 30-minute opening set. He started with “Golden,” which he described as a “Nashville guitar song.” He wrote “North Country” many years in Donegal, after a dream about the Vikings. He’s joined on the recording by Sam Bush and Mindy Smith. Other songs included “Hurricane,” which he recorded with Tim O’Brien and “Human Heart,” recorded with Tift Merritt.
“Let It Go,” he explained, is a completely different song from the one in the movie Frozen; his young daughters were as disappointed in that as anyone, and he mentioned how they bailed on him during a performance at the Kennedy Center. He wrote “Great Big Sea” long before he ever encountered the Canadian band, and he joked he suggested they change their name. Danny’s set also included his “Trouble” and the traditional “Danny Boy.” Danny has a new album of covers, Promised Land, which is sure to be great.
Steve Earle’s set was a masterclass in how a singer-songwriter can go about their business in a solo acoustic set. He found the perfect mix of a lot of songs with engaging, interesting stage banter, and he held the audience in the palm of his hand. He’ll be around next summer, he said — he’s off the road in the other months because he has to keep his son in school. Many of his efforts are now aimed at theater, which is a major reason he moved to New York almost 20 years ago. He’s at work on a musical theater adaptation of Tender Mercies; he’s working with Daisy Foot, daughter of the original writer, Horton Foot. I can’t wait for his next visit to his area and to see his work on the stage.
Here are some photos of Danny Burns opening Steve Earle at The Birchmere on August 23, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.
And here are some photos of Steve Earle headlining The Birchmere on August 23, 2023. Again all photos copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.