On the eve of his return to New Zealand, veteran American singer-songwriter Steve Earle talks to Graham Reid about music, politics - and people under pressure

NO subject - be it family, money, his job or politics - is off limits in a conversation with Steve Earle, if you can get a word in. A talker whose conversation takes off into interesting tangents, Earle only needs the slightest of starters - "You're from New Zealand? I like the country and I like to fish so ... " - and away he goes.

Like Bruce Springsteen, Earle is a well-off musician who can relate to the working class and those suffering economic privation.

His most recent album with his band The Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway, paints an unflinching picture of an America where discontent, bad drugs, unemployment and business closures have changed the social and emotional landscape. In one song a seething and disaffected character considers burning down a Walmart store.

However, in his liner notes Earle admits he's "an upscale gypsy, flying first class or rolling down the highway in a three quarter of a million dollar bus". That candour endears him to his audience.


"Looking out the window of the bus was an America I'd never seen before," he says from his home in New York, "and even Bob Dylan never saw. An America much closer to what Woody Guthrie saw, a place where people are really suffering.

"They talk about jobs coming back, but they're minimum-wage service jobs. It's not going to be the country I grew up in if this is what the recovery is. It's tough to watch."

But is his audience that underclass or middle-class folk who quite like identifying with the working class?

"I'd love to think romantically that my audience is all blue-collar people, but it's not. My audience is the NPR audience - National Public Radio people."

He says his audience is best defined as people who think like he does politically and then he digresses into how American music is received in places such as Australia. ("They're the closest things that exist to Americans, in good and bad ways. It's like Texas with an ocean around it.") And if he weren't by inclination a city person, New Zealand looks pretty good "if I were ready to live in place with a lot less people".

His regular visits have allowed him to get the pulse of a country with liberal tendencies he shares. And he likes the fishing.

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is also on his mind. He doesn't believe the lone gunman story because as a former deer hunter ("I killed something like 17 deer, all of them with bolt-action rifles") he's been to the place where it is alleged Lee Harvey Oswald shot from "and I'm telling you, it didn't happen".

Earle says that when he was growing up he "didn't know anyone who believed just one person killed Jack Kennedy ... now everyone believes it. I know pretty hard leftwing journalists - by our standards - who have accepted the Warren Commission's finding verbatim because they feel they won't have any credibility and no one will take them seriously if they don't.

"I don't believe we did 9/11 [to ourselves] however," he laughs.

The conversation turns to music again and he's enthusiastic about his current band - "the best I've ever had, it absolutely smokes" - and in it are guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore, who open his shows as the Mastersons.

"This is one where you don't want to blow off the support act, they're really good."

And Earle says in these tough times he's grateful people part with their money to see a country-rock band: "I'm personally thanking people for turning up and go out to the merchandise table and sign stuff and meet people after every show.

"Then I'm off to Turangi and fish.

"I know my job. It's about finding things deep and personal to you and being willing to talk about them. It's about your common experience with your audience, and not how different from them you are."

He mentions Little Rock 'n' Roller on his debut album Guitar Town in 1986, written about missing his young son, Justin, who is now 31. He was constantly touring, not living with Justin's mother any more and a drug habit was about to take him away from everyone for a while.

"People don't want to hear you singing about being sorry for yourself if you're riding around in a bus that cost more than their house. But they do want to hear that because you travel you miss your kids, because they miss theirs when they travel. That makes them feel like they're not alone."

Who: Steve Earle and the Dukes, with the Mastersons
Where: Powerstation, Auckland, April 26; St James Theatre, Wellington, April 27

- TimeOut