“I’m trying to get songs on country radio,” says Steve Earle. It’s not what anyone would expect to hear from Earle these days, especially when we’re supposed to be discussing Jerry Jeff, his new tribute album to Seventies Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker.
But even if the idea of a mainstream country hit makes him chuckle, Earle is completely serious. Of the endless creative projects the 67-year-old singer-songwriter is juggling after the end of his nightly appearances in the off-Broadway play Coal Country — prepping for a tour with the Dukes, working on a novel, awaiting word on a TV pilot that’s “a science-fiction thing set in Marfa,” covering the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” and painting — nothing has Earle more excited than Tender Mercies, the 1983 film about a down-and-out country singer he’s spent the past year and a half turning into a musical with playwright Daisy Foote.
Earle says he needs to write a number of songs for the play’s fictional band that, for narrative reasons, would sound at home in a contemporary country playlist. “If I can pull off writing something for them that you might hear on country radio now, we get a shot at being Dear Evan Hansen,” Earle says, referring to the successful Broadway musical-turned-Hollywood blockbuster. “That’s the idea. It’s completely and totally calculated. I want a Broadway hit before I die. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
To learn how to master today’s country, Earle has been writing with a slew of Nashville songwriting pros like Travis Hill (Kenny Chesney, Chris Janson) and his favorite young newcomer, Elvie Shane, with whom he’s about to record a version of “Pancho and Lefty.” He also mentions a song he’s started with Miranda Lambert that they’ve been sitting on for the last two years. “I’m trying to get her to finish a fucking song,” he says.
“The money would be good,” Earle says in his New York studio as he daydreams about scoring a country Number One. “But also, I’m not arrogant enough to think I know how to [write] like that. A few years ago, people made a lot of me saying that country music is largely hip-hop for people who are afraid of Black people.” (The widely-quoted Earle one-liner came from a 2017 interview.)
“But that was not a derogatory statement,” he continues. “It was just a statement of logistics. It was more of a compliment to hip-hop, but it wasn’t insulting anything. I’ve never been one to say, ‘Hey, what these guys are doing isn’t country.’”
Before Earle can resume work on Tender Mercies, however, he’ll spend the summer touring Jerry Jeff. A salute to the “Mr. Bojangles” songwriter, it’s Earle’s fourth tribute album (and third of the past three years), beginning with 2009’s Townes, followed by 2019’s Guy and 2021’s J.T., his heart-wrenching tribute to his late son, Justin Townes Earle. “I hope I don’t make another one,” Earle says of his tribute albums, each of which have come after the death of a dear friend or family member.
How, then, did Jerry Jeff, which sounds like the most effortless, free-flowing Earle album in years, come to be? According to Earle, there are two reasons, one less poetic than the other. Less glamorously, Earle says he “kinda needed a record this summer” and is far too caught up in musical writing to have enough original material for an album. But, more generously, Walker’s passing in 2020 had gotten Earle to thinking about the Texas-via-Oneonta, New York, songwriter’s influence on his own life — how everything, including his well-documented reverence for Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, can be traced back to Jerry Jeff.
“I was way closer to Townes and Guy, but I never would have known about them if it weren’t for Jerry Jeff,” Earle says. “The first time I ever heard a Guy Clark song, Jerry Jeff Walker was singing it. It just didn’t make sense for me not to make this record. It just felt like that would be a lack of respect for my elders, and probably my best fucking part of my character is that I do have respect for my elders. Almost everything else is questionable.”
Earle relishes the chance to talk about Jerry Jeff and share stories about another bygone legend from his past. Asked what he thinks people don’t know about Walker, he speaks for an uninterrupted eight minutes: He talks about how Walker once destroyed Earle’s guitar just months after buying it; how Jimmy Buffett recently told him that inviting Walker to stay at Buffett’s home years ago “finished off his marriage”; how Walker and Earle got much closer in the last few years of Walker’s life after his cancer diagnosis; how Walker introduced Earle to Tom Waits’ music; how Earle’s feelings are still a little bit hurt, decades later, by the fact that, when Walker once woke him up in the middle of the night to play a song for Neil Young, he asked Earle to sing one written by David Olney instead of one of his own.
Earle hopes his Jerry Jeff album reinforces the main point he wants to make about Walker — that he never received enough credit as a songwriter. Walker’s most famous recordings were often other people’s songs. “‘Mr. Bojangles’ was not the only great song he wrote,” he says. “I wanted to make sure people knew that.”
The only time Earle is more animated than when paying tribute to Walker is when he discusses theater. He’s been seeing as many plays as he can lately: musicals, dramas, anything. He recently took in a performance of Macbeth and is about to somewhat begrudgingly go see David Mamet’s American Buffalo (“It’s a girl that wants to go see it”). Earle raves about the Bob Dylan musical Girl From the North Country, in part because he sees the play as an opening for the type of hit musical he feels poised to write in Tender Mercies. “It’s 50-year-old women who buy tickets for musicals,” he claims. “But 50-year-old women now grew up on Bob Dylan, so it’s my time to do this.”
Earle mentions another play he plans on attending soon, the latest Broadway adaptation of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. He says he was brought to tears when he learned the cast has been walking out to Justin Townes Earle’s “Champagne Corolla,” a song he covered for last year’s J.T.
Earle’s whole-hearted embrace of theater has the songwriter as happy as ever to be in New York, where he lives with his youngest son, John Henry. The two of them recently moved from the Village to Battery Park City. After nearly two decades of living in New York, he’s proud to finally own his own apartment, which he bought with money he recently received from selling all his publishing to former Warner CEO Cameron Strang. “I sold everything,” he says. “So I’m starting over, as far as being a songwriter and having royalties and income from copyrights….I didn’t get the kinda money Bob [Dylan] and Bruce [Springsteen] got, but it was good money for me and I was able to buy a place in New York. And I’m out of debt.”
All the painting, theater, television writing, and novel plotting has left Earle with almost no time to consume much new music or literature these days. “I re-read Harry Potter books a lot these days,” he says, “because I don’t get to take dope”.
He’s also leaning hard into this current run of unceasing creativity. During a rare day off during his tour this July, between dates in Dallas and Austin, he’s going to haul his band the 14 or so hours, there-and-back, to Marfa for a day, where his beloved friends Terry and Jo Harvey Allen will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary for a full two weeks.
“I gotta be there for that,” Earle says. After the losses of Van Zandt, Clark, and now Jerry Jeff Walker, perhaps it’s more important than ever for Earle to be celebrating his friends and mentors while they’re still thriving. After all, no one has ever accused him of not respecting his elders.