The Okkervil River leader and the outlaw country legend trade notes on tradition, storytelling, and just plain pissing people off.
Steve Earle — country rebel, playwright, actor, and now novelist — fishes an iPhone from his weathered denim jacket, eager to show Will Sheff a video of his one-year-old son, John Henry, bopping his head to “The Valley,” the opening track from I Am Very Far, the artfully raw sixth album from Sheff’s band Okkervil River. “As soon as the drums came in,” Earle says in his laconic drawl, “it was automatic. It gets the John Henry Seal of Approval.”
With his corduroy suit and glasses, the Okkervil River frontman could pass for an English professor, whereas Earle looks like a particularly wise roadhouse bouncer, weathered, but more robust than he ever could have dreamed during bouts of drug addiction and jail time in the ’90s. But they have more in common than appearances might suggest: Sheff, 34, and Earle, 56, are both former Texas residents who have recently relocated to New York City, and both have spent their careers reshaping melodic folk, country twang, and novelistic storytelling to fit their idiosyncratic visions and those of their heroes.
Last year Sheff produced the Grammy-nominated True Love Cast Out All Evil, the first new album from psychedelic-rock pioneer Roky Erickson in more than a decade, while Earle produced folk icon Joan Baez’s 2008 Day After Tomorrow. Earle recently released his debut novel and new T-Bone Burnettproduced album, both named I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, while juggling his role as New Orleans musician Harley on the second season of HBO’s Treme.
The fact that we were able to get the two men in the same room (in early April) to talk about tradition and when to flout it is a small miracle, itself worthy of song. Any discussion of how Americana has evolved — and not evolved — would be incomplete without these two artists, so why not have them discuss it with one another?
SPIN: Fans of traditional art forms are often very protective. Do you get a lot of flack from fans who feel you’ve strayed too far from your folk roots?
SHEFF: I never considered myself an Americana artist, but I’m a huge fan of old-time music from the States, the recordings that were made in the ’20s and ’30s. Trying to chase down the exact stylistic trappings of that stuff always felt like a dead end. That spirit of directness and economy, but also the poetic pungency of the writing and almost ugly, or raw, performance — all that seemed like the real message. I’ve just tried to somehow stay true to that feeling.
EARLE: I’m not going to bad-mouth Americana; I think I have the No. 1 Americana record right now. I can fight it all I want to, but basically I’m a folk singer.
SHEFF: If you were a performer that only had an acoustic instrument, back in the day you couldn’t hide behind your guitar pedals or the production or the vibe. There was performance and then there was the song, and that was all that you had.
SPIN: So you better have a good song.
SHEFF: Yeah, and I think that that’s why those songs rose to such an incredibly high level of beauty and craft.
EARLE: I’m constantly warning people that are involved in my life that I can go busk and make a living. I can make my rent in New York City in the subway, I promise, if I’m forced to.
SPIN: You could make the argument that any genre which addresses what people are going through — their needs, desires, and struggles, be it hip-hop, metal, or punk — is a form of folk music.
SHEFF: I think that anything is a form of folk music. That’s just me being glib, but the thing I like the best about humans, and there are not many other things besides this, is that humans make culture. If you’re an artist, a big part of folk is noticing what other people are doing and incorporating it and changing it — the way that songs warp and change over time. Culture dictated from above is the enemy of folk music. Whether it’s stuffy classical music or pre-engineered pop where somebody’s paid tons of money to make sure that everyone hears this song a certain number of times a day — that feels like the opposite of folk music.
EARLE: I have a lot of respect for my audience, but I am here to make art. And my audience is not what it could have been because of decisions I’ve made at several points in my career. If I had decided to do whatever MCA Nashville had told me to do, I would have made a lot more money. But I had a publishing deal, so I could keep my band on the road and play music the way I wanted to. If I hadn’t written “John Walker’s Blues” [the 2002 ballad empathizing with American Taliban John Walker Lindh], I probably would have more money now. I went through a period of basically being blacklisted from national television. Nobody would admit it. The first time I was on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was hosting it, and I had never failed to book any of the major late-night shows for any record I ever released, until I wrote that song. You make decisions, and that’s what separates art from some other pop music. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make an embarrassing amount of money, for a borderline Marxist, doing something that you love, but it does mean that this huge pool of money that was out there when I started making records in the ’80s is gone. I used to think that maybe my fans were too old to download and that was why my record sales aren’t that much less than they were before the music business collapsed. But it’s probably not that. The truth is, as much as I like to think I have a working-class audience in the heart of America, my audience is kind of an NPR audience. My younger audience comes as much from the political side of things as it does from anything else. I’m pretty sure I’ve alienated people with every single fucking record I’ve put out. If I’m not alienating a few people, then I’m probably not doing this right.
SHEFF: You’ve got to believe people are grateful for that, too. The whole thing about attracting a fan base or making people like you, it’s like hitting on somebody in a bar. If you go up to them and you’re like, “Why don’t you like me? Please go out with me,” they’re going to be running away as fast as they can. But if you’re like, “I like what I’m doing, you can take part if you want, or don’t, I don’t really give a shit,” that’s the only attitude people are going to respect. Even Lady Gaga, she’s only got a small number of people who really, truly get what she does and who she’s writing it for. But in order to be huge, she’s got to get the whole world to pay attention. In a lot of ways, the way you’re making your bread and butter is off people who aren’t necessarily who you’re writing for.
EARLE: Rock’n’roll — it’s a very, very unpredictable thing. I don’t know why this Kings of Leon record didn’t do what everyone expected it to do, because I thought it was fucking great. Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen in this business is fucking lying. There’s no new model yet. We’re all making it up as we go along. We used to make records for girls, now we make them for nerds.
SPIN: Both of you have worked with icons of American folk and rock. How important is it for you to keep a link to the past?
SHEFF: This is going to sound really corny, but it’s the way I feel: Musicians have been around for a really long time. It’s a really, really old job. When you look at the way that a small band toured back in the ’50s, it’s similar to the way that a small band tours now. It’s been this long tradition, and when you meet somebody who has been doing this for a really long time, you have to have tremendous respect for them. The Roky thing was, you have to be there for your fellow musician, and I’m a deep admirer of Roky. I believed very strongly that this was a way I could help him, and it was something that would be special for both of us, and special for other people.
EARLE: You walked into a moment in his life, when a lot of things had been suddenly moved out of his way that had been there for years. This is coming from somebody who literally saw the 13th Floor Elevators doing “Reverberation” on the local teen show. It used to piss me off when people showed up in Austin and went off to Roky’s house with a carton of cigarettes and a 12-pack.
SHEFF: Everybody wanted to do drugs with Roky. He just had all kinds of people in the music business taking advantage of him, people who did not have his best interests at heart.
SPIN: Steve, did you have a similar notion, that you wanted to prove to your audience that Joan Baez is more than just this person that they’ve read about in history books?
EARLE: To keep it in perspective, I don’t think people are totally aware of how big a star Joan Baez was. Her first two records — this was pre-Sgt. Pepper’s — were gold records. That’s a lot of fucking albums to sell. Especially nonclassical, nonjazz at the time. I’m not sure we find out about Bob Dylan without Joan Baez. I am connected to the past in a way that keeps me going forward. Every leap forward that I make is by reaching back and firmly getting a footing in the past, and pushing forward as hard as I can.
SPIN: How important is it for you to pass along information to the next generation? Steve, Conor Oberst has said that on the morning after the 2004 presidential election, he was freaking out and called you to talk him down. And Will, you produced the new album by the Brooklyn band Bird of Youth.
EARLE: I’m a folk singer, and it’s part of the tradition. I had good teachers: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Young, John Hiatt. It’s also sort of a recovery thing — you keep what you have by giving it away.
SHEFF: In a certain sense, there’s a responsibility to try to help shepherd younger artists and newer artists and try to teach them what you know. I also try to remember that there’s probably a lot of shit they know that I don’t know.
EARLE: Yep. Absofuckinglutely.
SHEFF: There’s a lot of ways in which I’m this weird, out-of-touch person they have to supplant and destroy. We’re about to go on tour with Titus Andronicus, and I was saying to a friend, “They’re going to go onstage and try to kill us every night. And we’re going to have to defend ourselves against them.” And it’s a great thing. Eventually, just like you have to tear down things that have gotten too hallowed and too revered, you have to be ready for people who are going to try and come along and tear you down. It’s just the cycle of things.
SPIN: Will, you’ve written about the poet John Berryman, the porn star Savannah, and the glam singer Jobriath. Steve, some people have all but tried to deport you for “John Walker’s Blues.” Are you writing about the actual truth of these people, or are you trying to elevate them to the level of myth or folk hero?
SHEFF: You can try as hard as you possibly can to channel somebody, but it’s still a lot of you filtering through. With Savannah, you’re looking at somebody who a lot of people look down on. So in that way, you’re trying to create the myth and trying to give a beautiful, outsized sense of this person, because it’s the kind of person that people would shit on otherwise. It always comes from a place of incredible empathy and love and wanting to give these characters a fair shake. I’m really disgusted in movies or books or songs by a character who’s just set up to be taken down.
EARLE: I wrote that song because no one else was fucking going to. And I did it because my son Justin is exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh. So I saw a skinny, 20-year-old kid very similar-looking to my own, firstborn son, duct-taped to a fucking board in Afghanistan. My first thought was, “Oh my God, he has parents somewhere.” And I respond to some things as a man, some things as a boy, some things as an artist, and some things as a parent. And I responded as a parent. I knew there were going to be repercussions. It was funny, when the whole thing came down, somebody on Fox accused me of doing it to sell a lot of records. I was like, “Dude, there are a lot of things you can do to sell records in this climate and that ain’t one of them.”
SPIN: Will, you lived in Austin and, Steve, you lived in Houston before moving to Nashville. In the past few years, you’ve both moved to New York. Is it easier for you to breathe in a town that’s not so deeply connected to one particular style or sound?
SHEFF: It was hilarious when we started out, because I’m from New Hampshire. That’s very un-Americana and un-country. Then I went to school in Minnesota, and then I went down to Texas and started this band, and everybody was suddenly like, “It’s an alt-country band.” And it was just so preposterous to me, being this New Hampshire Yankee. That was frustrating. Not that I don’t absolutely love country music, but I also absolutely love hip-hop, and I’m not a hip-hop artist, you know what I mean? Even though I love Austin, I come from New England, and I always felt like I was the most uptight person in Austin. Now I feel like I’m the most laid-back person in New York.
EARLE: My dad was in a wheelchair and on oxy-gen for the last few years of his life. If I got my wings clipped, is Nashville, Tennessee, really the place I would want to be when it happened? I’d rather be one of these old Commies in the power wheelchair that run over my foot on Bleecker Street. At this point of my life, I need the fucking input. I need my finger in the fucking light socket, and New York City does it.