Nashville songwriter, Townes Van Zandt disciple, and onetime actor on “The Wire” Steve Earle is one of the great ornery figures in alt-country. His latest album,“Colvin and Earle,” is a collaboration with the folkie Shawn Colvin — a short, winning album with a fair bit of rootsy twang. (“Colvin and Earle” also includes four covers, among them songs by Emmylou Harris and the Rolling Stones.)
The two met while performing a show at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., in the late ‘80s; decades later, they met at the Nashville home of musician Buddy Miller, who produced the date. (The album comes out Tuesday.)
Salon spoke to Earle from New York; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You and Shawn Colvin have worked together before, including a tour – whose idea was it to make an album together?
It was my idea to make a record, Shawn’s idea originally for us to tour together… three years ago we did about 30 dates over the course of a year. But what intrigued both of us, the surprise was that we really sing well together, we think, and there's something that happens when we sing that we just didn't bargain on and that made me want to write for that group. For me it's always trying to find an excuse to write a song. The older you get the harder it is to trick yourself into making art, especially in your home base. I'm a firm believer, because of [visual artist and songwriter] Terry Allen and a few other people I know that, the more discipline you can dabble in the more it strengthens your home base. I know what mine is, I know what my day job is. So I wanted to write for those two places that intrigued me; I wanted to write songs for that. I came up with that idea, we should write some songs and make a record.
Did you have any sound you were going for?
Sound, not necessarily, that sort of took care of itself. We just sort of instantly sounded like something to me. We knew we wanted to tour it, the way that we had been touring without a band, so that was it, probably, to some degree. It's sort of like busking, is the deal, we wanted to be really self-contained. I'm not saying we wouldn't rule out the possibility of a return of the band, it would be kind of cool, but we really do this stuff pretty well. When you're making records it's a different thing, but it works pretty well just the two of us live, so at least until we're proven wrong that's the theory we're sticking to.
I didn't play electric guitar anywhere on the record, but Richard Bennett and Buddy Miller handled all that. I played other stuff that I can drag along, make what we do -- two people up on stage -- more interesting. I played mandolin, octave mandolin, bouzouki, whichever one you want to call it. Don't call it bouzouki when you're going through security at an airport, is my advice.
The main thing was: It's a group, it's not duets. I like duets for every record I make, but they're very much Steve Earle records and they sound like Steve Earle records with a girl singing along with me. I've written one for my sister, but it's usually written with that girl's voice in my head. The template's not George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette], the template's Crosby, Stills and Nash. It's a group. We think of it that way, we plan on doing it again, so we've had to kind of fight for it for people to understand that. That's why it's called Colvin & Earle… we're trying to establish the existence of something that's never existed before, called Colvin & Earle.
You cover the Rolling Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday” here; what made you want to cover a song that well-known?
“Ruby Tuesday” itself I had brought to the table when we were touring before, but we never got around to learning it. It was my idea. The covers are essentially… it's the shit we want to sing. She brought "Tobacco Road," I brought "Ruby Tuesday." And I like that version of "Ruby Tuesday" a lot, I'm really proud of it. And what's new about it, the reason it has a reason to exist is because we sing in harmony all the way through it.
Is that a tough one to play; are the chord changes difficult?
Shawn seems to pull it off just fine. She's the guitar player, I'm the octave mandolin player. On the record I'm not playing anywhere but the choruses. Live, I play other places, after the first verse just to add some color to it. But it's pretty cool — I get to be Mick and Keith. I sing the melody on the verses and Keith’s part on the choruses and I get to be Brian Jones because I'm playing the weird instrument.
[The Stones album] "Flowers," which doesn't exist anywhere in the States, that album is where I learned to play guitar. So it was a big deal.
I learned to play "Mother's Little Helper," but I wasn't even close to playing it correctly.
Look, I love the Stones, but my favorite stuff is this stuff from this period when they're competing with the Beatles and they know it and they're writing great, great songs. The riff-rock period is cool and I love that stuff, but keep in mind that the moment in history when the Rolling Stones become the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world, is the moment that the Beatles break up. That's my favorite stuff still, and I learned to play some of that “Flowers” album. It's got "Ruby Tuesday," "Have You Seen Your Mother," it's got "Sittin’ on a Fence," which was only released here, and it's got "Lady Jane," it's got tons of just great acoustic guitar stuff, but the chords structures are all a little counterintuitive, on purpose, because they're competing with the Beatles and they know it.
Does it seem that things have politically gone crazy recently?
Oh yeah, they were always pretty nuts but now it's completely, totally, utterly batshit.
Are you surprised by what's happening?
No, no, we get the democracy that we deserve. And I hate to say "I told you so," but reality television really is bad. I don’t watch it on purpose because I'm trying to protect my intellect. And without believing that reality television is real and Fox News is news, Donald Trump as a viable candidate for president is not even possible. But it's right because he pisses everybody on Fox News off, that people are at least trying to pretend to be conservatives; they helped create him. And MSNBC helped create him. So it's one of those things, like OK, dumbasses.
And one of the most dangerous things that anyone can do that gives a fuck is to assume that he can't get elected, because it's simply not true, he absolutely can.
I'm going to support Bernie Sanders until he's out of the race and I don't think there's any harm in doing that and he's going to stay in to the end just exactly like Hillary did and she's not going to be able to say a word about it. The Democratic party is going to have to deal with both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when they get to the convention. They're both keeping themselves in a position to have an effect and that's fucking democracy. That's what collapsed on the Republican side, and their convention is meaningless now because they let this happen before they even got there and they can't just pull the plug, they can't just nominate somebody else — then you see the little guy behind the curtain pulling the levers, like we don't, but they wanna try and still have a party when it's over. It's arguably the end of the Republican party, so I may send him a thank-you card for that.
How do you see MSNBC leading to Trump's election?
I watch fucking “Morning Joe” every day, it's there, and it's where I can find out what happened yesterday in Washington when I wake up in the morning and I get a 6-year-old ready for school. I can turn it down low and see what's there... They just gave him more free air time off the bat than anybody else did. They worked it.
It reminded me of, did you ever see local TV shows, where there was some nut that would call in every day and everybody started to look forward to it? That's what it reminded me of.
They legitimized him?
They absolutely did. Because ratings, ratings, ratings.
It's been fun to see you show up in movies and shows like “The Wire” and “Treme.” Do you have anything coming up?
I would love to have another series, but a lot of plans have to line up for me to be able to do that, because I don't make as much money doing that as I do with my day job so... and I'm paying a lot of child support and alimony, so it's one of those things.