“I try to get songs on country radio,” says Earle. That’s not what anyone would expect to hear from Earle these days, especially when we’re supposed to chat. jerry jefhis new tribute album to 70s Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker.
But even though the idea of a mainstream country hit makes him laugh, Earle is dead serious. Among the endless creative projects the 67-year-old singer-songwriter juggles after his nightly appearances in the off-Broadway play ended Coal Country — prepare a tour with the Dukes, working on a novel, waiting for word on a TV pilot that’s “some sci-fi thing set in Marfa”, covering The Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” and painting – nothing has excited Earle more than tender mercies, the 1983 film about a depressed country singer he spent a year and a half turning into a musical with playwright Daisy Foote.
Earle says he has to write a number of songs for the fictional band in the play that, for narrative reasons, would sound right at home on a contemporary country playlist. “If I can manage to write something for them that you could hear on country radio now, we have a chance to be Dear Evan Hansen,says Earle, referring to the hit 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 wrote with a bunch 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 Gaucher. He also mentions a song he started with Miranda Lambert that they’ve been sitting on for two years. “I’m trying to get him to finish a fucking song he says.
“Money would be good,” Earle says in his New York studio as he dreams of scoring a country number one. “Bbut also, I’m not arrogant enough to think I know how [write] like that. A few years ago people made me say a lot that country music is largely hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people. (The widely quoted Earle one-liner is from a 2017 interview.)
“But it wasn’t a derogatory statement,” he continues. “It was just a logistical statement. It was more of a compliment to hip-hop, but it wasn’t insulting in any way. I’ve never been one to go, ‘Hey, what are these guys doing, it’s not country.”
Before Earle could resume work on tender mercieshowever, he will spend the summer on tour Jerry Jeff. A tribute to ‘Mr. Bojangles Songwriter is Earle’s fOur fourth tribute album (and the third of the past three years), starting with 2009 Cities2019 follow-up Dude and News 2021, his heartbreaking tribute to his late son, Justin Townes Earle. “I hope I don’t do another one,” Earle says of his tribute albums, each of which came after the death of a dear friend or family member.
How, then, did jerry jef, which sounds like Earle’s smoothest, smoothest album in years, has it become? According to Earle, there are two reasons, one less poetic than the other. Less glamorous, Earle says he “kinda needed a record this summer” and is far too engrossed in writing music to have enough original material for an album. But, more generously, Walker’s passing in 2020 had Earle 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 much closer to Townes and Guy, but I never would have known about them if it hadn’t been for Jerry Jeff,” Earle says. “The first time I heard a Guy Clark song, Jerry Jeff Walker was singing it. It didn’t make sense to me not to make that record. I just felt like it would be a disrespect for my elders, and probably the best fucking part of my character is that I have respect for my elders. Almost everything else is debatable.
Earle relishes the chance to talk about jerry jef and sharing stories about another bygone legend from his past. When asked what he thinks people don’t know about Walker, he talks for eight uninterrupted minutes: he recounts how Walker destroyed Earle’s guitar just months after buying it; how Jimmy Buffett recently told her that inviting Walker to stay with Buffett years ago “ended his marriage”; how Walker and Earle grew much closer in the last years of Walker’s life after his cancer diagnosis; how Walker introduced Earle to the music of Tom Waits; how Earle’s feelings are still a little 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 jef The album reinforces the main point he wants to make about Walker – that he never got enough credit as a songwriter. Walker’s most famous recordings were often songs by other people. “‘Mr. Bojangles wasn’t the only great song he wrote,’ he says. “I wanted to make sure people knew that.”
The only time Earle gets more animated than when he’s paying homage to Walker is when he’s talking about theater. He’s seen as many plays as he can lately: musicals, dramas, anything. He recently attended a performance of macbeth and is about to go a little reluctantly to see David Mamet American buffalo (“It’s a girl who wants to go see him”). Earle raves about Bob Dylan’s musical North country girlin part because he sees the play as an opening for the type of hit musical he feels he’s about to write in tender mercies. “These are 50-year-old women buying tickets to musicals,” he says. “But 50-year-old women have now grown up with Bob Dylan, so that’s up to me.”
Earle mentions another play he plans to attend soon, Paula Vogel’s latest Broadway adaptation. How I learned to drive. He says he was moved to tears when he learned the cast was heading to Justin Townes Earle’s “Champagne Corolla,” a song he covered last year. news
Earle’s sincere embrace of the theater makes the songwriter happier than ever to be in New York, where he lives with his youngest son, John Henry. The two recently moved from the Village to Battery Park City. After nearly two decades of living in New York, he is proud to finally own his own apartment, which he bought with the money he recently received from the sale of all his editing to former Warner CEO Cameron Strang. “I sold everything,” he says. “So I’m starting over again, in terms of being a songwriter and having royalties and copyright income…I haven’t had the kind of money Bob [Dylan] and Bruce [Springsteen] got it, but it was a lot of money for me and I was able to buy a house in New York. And I have no more debts.
All of the painting, acting, television writing and plotting of novels has left Earle with almost no time to consume much new music or literature these days. ” I read again Harry Potter pounds a lot these days,” he says, “because I can’t do drugs.
It also leans heavily into this current race of relentless creativity. On a rare day off from his tour in July, between dates in Dallas and Austin, he’ll ferry his band for about 14 hours, round trip, to Marfa for a day, where his friends well- Loved ones Terry and Jo Harvey Allen will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary for two weeks.
“I have to be here for that,” Earle said. After the losses of Van Zandt, Clark and now Jerry Jeff Walker, it is perhaps more important than ever for Earle to celebrate his friends and mentors while they are still thriving. After all, no one ever accused him of not respecting his elders.