Sessions At West 54th Street
Interview with Steve Earle and Del McCoury
DAVID BYRNE: You became a staff writer for a while. It's hard for me to imagine.
STEVE EARLE: Well what happened was, I'd been writing songs in Texas and I'd been in town about a year and I got a publishing deal. I got a $75 a week draw, that's the way they did it in Nashville those days, and I got a publishing deal. That went up to $100 a week after six months, and then after the first option was over with, they decided they were going to keep me. I got $150 for the rest of the run of the five year contract, so then the company sold and I moved to Mexico for a couple of years, but I couldn't get them to release me. I could live a lot better on $150 a week in San Miguel Allende then I could in Nashville. There were some people that were willing to support writers that they knew were really good, and occasionally, we'd get a cut. Nobody thought we were going to write a bunch of Barbara Mandrell records or anything.
A guy named Noel Fox signed me over there and he really knew how to work with writers. I was starting to get a little down, I'd been in town for a long time, I got there when I was 19. Noel encouraged me to write what I write and I sat down and wrote ten songs in 11 months, that turned out to be Guitar Town, my first album.
DAVID BYRNE: No stopping after that.
STEVE EARLE: Well, there was stopping, but it was pretty abrupt. And it was all my fault.
DAVID BYRNE: In this show you're playing with Del McCoury and his band. And you're doing the next record with them. How'd you meet?
STEVE EARLE: We met relatively recently, just about three years ago I guess it was. We knew about each other and I had a song called If You Need A Fool. Ken Irwin called me and he said that he's recording the Del McCoury Band and they like this song but it needs another verse to be a bluegrass song. I wrote him another verse real quick and it ended up on what's one of the best bluegrass records that was ever made called The Blue Side of Town. Then I wrote a song for El Corazón called I Still Carry You Around and I wrote it specifically to record with this band and stuck it right in the middle of a rock 'n roll record, which I thought was really cool. It was fun. And we've done a few things together and I decided once and for all that I was going to make this record.
We did a show together and we had to rehearse a bunch of my other material. I had some traditional stuff, and did about an hour show for this. Del and the boys started performing with one microphone.
DAVID BYRNE: Did you do that a long time ago and then stop using just one mic and then go back to it?
DEL MCCOURY: Sure did. We used one mic in the middle '60's. They started putting multiple mics out and so we started back about maybe two years ago, off and on, we'd just use one mic and no monitors.
DAVID BYRNE: There's a whole choreography that has to be worked out.
DEL MCCOURY: Actually it just comes natural.
STEVE EARLE: I was proud of myself, the first time we did it together, that I didn't put Del's eye out. And it's even harder with both of us playing because we're both playing guitar and they're the two biggest instruments that are mobile up there. But the way it works is, the lead instruments are on one side of the stage and Del comes up in the middle.
DAVID BYRNE: Nobody's a lefty, right?
STEVE EARLE: No. Thank God. Left-handed banjo players need not apply. It would be dangerous.
DAVID BYRNE: How do the bluegrass people take to you in that context?
DEL MCCOURY: I think they do. For one thing, he writes such great songs and he's a good singer, great singer. And I didn't know before, he's a great guitar player. And so he has it all.
STEVE EARLE: I had played some bluegrass festivals, none of the really hard core ones. I played Telluride and I played "Merlefest", the Merle Watson Memorial Festival with the Train band and people came back to the station and nobody threw anything at us. Actually a few people have gone out of their way to come up to me and say that they thought that this was good for bluegrass music. Some people it's going to upset and I'm going to have some fans that are not going to get it. My last record label certainly didn't get it. I ended up leaving over making this record. I'm a songwriter. Bluegrass is the original alternative country music. Bluegrass players have to decide that they're going to do something just for the love of the music, because there really isn't a way at this point to get rich playing bluegrass music. There was a time when Bill Monroe was a big star and there was a time when Bill's band was a mainstream part of country music but an entire genre of music has grown out of what this one guy made up, and not very many people can say that. He literally, single-handedly, invented an American art form.
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