Steve Earle — the Grammy-winning American folk, rock, and country “hardcore troubadour” — will be the next performer in the “Portraits” series with G.E. Smith, produced by Taylor Barton, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, October 26.
Next to his writing — whether it’s his songs like “Copperhead Road” or “Guitar Town” or his novel, short stories, or even the play he scribed — next to all of this, and his role as Harley Wyatt on HBO’s “Treme,” Earle is known for his story telling.
And tell them he does. When, as the interview opener (and we only had 15 minutes because he is in high demand), he was asked about the “elephant sanctuary” — at the suggestion of a little bird — his response was hearty laughter.
“I never actually saw it up close,” he said. “But it just so happens that there is an elephant sanctuary in the same town I got sober in. There’s a little treatment center called Buffalo Valley in Lewis County, TN. And it’s called Lewis County because Merriweather Lewis committed suicide there. He was on his way back to Philadelphia and holed up there instead, shot himself, and did a pretty bad job of it. It took him four months to die.”
“The joke was always if people bailed out on Buffalo Valley and walked in the wrong direction, they would come up against an elephant,” he said, laughing again.
His friendship with legendary guitarist G.E. Smith goes way back. “I knew who he was because of ‘Saturday Night Live,’” where Smith was the musical director for a decade, “but he was playing guitar in Bob Dylan’s band when Bob went back out on the road in the late ’80s. And we were the opening act. When I was offered the tour, I thought Bob Dylan would never go out on the road again at that point. As it turns out, he hasn’t come off the road since.”
Earle said he and Smith had a lot of things in common, “some bad, some good,” and they were both avid guitar collectors. “After that, I ran into him at George Gruhn’s guitar shop in Nashville a few times. I own a mandola to this day that belonged to G.E. that I bought there, and he probably had traded it for something else.”
As far as his collecting, “I’ve gotten way more selective,” Earle said. “I’m actually a pretty serious collector. Not a lot of players are. G.E. is, but I think he’s a little more bulimic than I am. I don’t sell mine very often. At one point, before I built my guitar room, I looked at them all stacked in the corner and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this is hoarding.’ But it’s something I understand, it’s something I love, it’s something valuable, and it’s somewhere to put money besides Wall Street,” he said the last two words with a twinge of disgust.
“I don’t do Wall Street,” he added. “If I want to gamble, I’ll go to Vegas.”
Besides the stuff he’s written (and his songs have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and Shawn Colvin, to name just a few), Earle has also been the subject of two biographies and a documentary film, and he hosted the “Hardcore Troubadour” show on the Outlaw Country channel.
He is also a vocal opponent of the death penalty. His song “Ellis Unit One” was used in the movie “Dead Man Walking” and in 2010, Earle received the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star of Abolition award. His youngest son is autistic, so Earle is also a champion for more autism-friendly schools and research.
Where was his activism born? “We moved to Texas when I was still a kid, and Texas was executing people at an alarming rate. My mother was really disturbed by it. I grew up in a house that was against capital punishment.”
There was one case, “basically a poor kid who killed a rich kid in a brawl in a parking lot, and got the death sentence. The rich kid’s family hired a special prosecutor, which was legal then. My father thought that was not fair, and he wrote a letter to the governor of Texas, John Connally, the guy who got shot, who was sitting behind JFK. And that was when I was about six or seven, and it made an impression on me.”
There is so much more to tell. Steve Earle will tell you himself, along with playing his music, on Saturday at 8 PM in Westhampton Beach. Visit www.whbpac.org for tickets.