“I’m at the point in my life where I’m trying really, really, really hard to impress upon people, especially in America, that we’re in the trouble we’re in because we don’t listen,” Steve Earle says, on a Zoom call from the road. And when the hardcore American troubadour and outlaw country icon suggests you listen, you better be all ears.
Earle plays Toronto’s Massey Hall on Aug. 24, his lone Canadian date. He spoke to The Globe and Mail about controversial country singer Jason Aldean, freedom of speech and the trouble with the music industry.
You’re touring on your own. Is a solo acoustic show tougher on you?
It’s physically way harder. It always has been, but I didn’t start realizing it was harder until I was older.
I’ll get this question out of the way. What is your take on Jason Aldean and Try That In A Small Town, which has been criticized as racist?
I haven’t heard it. So, it’s not appropriate for me to comment on it. I didn’t listen to country radio when I was on it. My guess is that it’s like the Toby Keith thing.
You’re talking about Keith’s 2002 song, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
I think Jason Aldean’s song may be more politically motivated than that was. My thing about Toby Keith was that he was going after a reaction from an audience to sell records, more than he was anything else. And during that war [in Afghanistan], the most popular stance to take was that whatever the government was doing was okay. But that’s not me. It’s not who I am. But I also understand there are people who feel that way. I understand the support-our-troops thing.
What do you think Aldean’s motivations are with Try That In A Small Town?
I don’t know. I know that picking out Black Lives Matter [in the video], it’s possible that was an accident. But it’s possible that it’s not. If it’s not, I’m not okay with that. Freedom of speech, I believe in that. But he has gone out of his way to put himself in the position that he’s in.
The position he put himself in is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Well, that’s true. But the charts aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.
On your latest album, a tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker, you sing his 1987 song Gypsy Songman, with a line about wanting just a dime a song. If only Spotify would pay that today, right?
We’d be back to kind of where we were in the 1970s and 80s. There was real money in this for a long time. But I’m not sure artists take enough responsibility, and the business takes enough responsibility, for what happened in the record business. People want to blame it on downloading. I think it was because of bad songs too.
Albums with two hits and the rest filler?
Yeah. A lot of us grew up listening to great singer-songwriters. Songwriting, the lyrical content, was what elevated rock ‘n’ roll to an art form in the first place. People talk about the instrumentalists. Well, Jimi Hendrix was a pretty good lyricist as well. Led Zeppelin was about songs. Nirvana was about songs. The last two great songwriters that came out of rock ‘n’ roll were Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell. There were a few others in that same wave, but those two were important and sold records. And that’s who will be remembered, usually because the stuff’s better. I’ve never fooled myself about that.
As someone who has appeared in a few films, do you think the film business is looking at the record industry as a cautionary tale?
Absolutely. And I’m down with that.
After Gregg Allman died, I saw you play his song Midnight Rider, about being on the run and vowing not to be caught. Who or what is chasing you at age 68?
I don’t think anyone’s after me. The older you get, the harder you have to fight for relevance. My audience is older. I can tell, because the line’s larger at the men’s room now than it is for the ladies’ room at my shows.
How do you deal with that fight for relevance?
I know what I am here to do. I’m a songwriter, and I’m working on a musical, Tender Mercies. It will probably open at the Public Theatre, but it’s Broadway-tracked. Theatre takes a lot of time, and the clock is ticking.