The Last of the Hardcore Troubadours, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen
By Ryan Hilligoss, January 15, 2015
And now he’s the last of the all night, do right
Stand beneath your window ’til daylight
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours
Baby, what you waitin’ for
He’s the last of the all night, do right
Hey Rosalita won’t you come out tonight
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours, Steve Earle Hardcore Troubadour, 1996
(Expanded and revised text from special programming on Sirius/XM E Street Radio, Channel 20, Be The Boss segment. To be aired Thursday 1/15 5:00pm EST, Friday 1/16 9:00am EST, and Saturday 1/17 6:00pm EST.)
This is a special post dedicated to the musical connections between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle who celebrates his 60th birthday on January 17. For those of you who don’t know, Steve Earle is a songwriter, singer, musician, recording artist, political activist, poet, actor and author. Earle is also the host of the Sirius/XM show Steve Earle: Hardcore Troubadour Radio that airs on Outlaw Radio, channel 60 on Saturdays at 9:00pm est and well worth the listen as each week, Earle picks a theme and plays records from a wide array of artists, genres and styles that reflect his eclectic tastes in music that have inspired and influenced his own writings and recordings over the years. As we move well into the 21st Century, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle continue to make some of the best music of their careers.Together, their music runs on parallel steel rails and highways that stretch from the ‘New York Islands to the Redwood Forest.’
In the last fifteen years, Springsteen has released the albums, High Hopes, Wrecking Ball, Working On A Dream, Magic, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Devils and Dust and The Rising. Many of these rank in my own personal top 10 Springsteen albums of all time, and Wrecking Ball, The Rising and Magic rank in my top 5. Conversely, Earle has released The Low Highway, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Townes, Washington Square Serenade, The Revolution Starts Now,Transcendental Blues, El Corazon, and The Mountain. All these albums combined stand as one hell of a hitting streak for two recording artists in regards to the quality of songwriting, range of styles, arrangements, topics, soul and spirit covered on these albums.
Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 2007
While E Street regulars know that Bruce Springsteen was born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey, one thing they may not know is he grew up in a section of town called ‘Texas’ that included a lot of people from Texas and other southern states who moved to the north to find jobs at the many factories in the area. Due to his surroundings, Springsteen developed a slightly southern accent which you can still hear at times in his normal speech and in his singing from time to time, most clearly to me on the song Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s musical roots include the music of Motown and Stax studios, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Crystals and Shirelles, and many more including artists in country and punk music.
Steve Earle was raised in and around San Antonio, Texas and his musical roots lean more towards singer songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt. My friend Jeff Calaway from Texas has heard that Earle and his family were so proud of their roots that when Steve Earle was born, the family lived in another state temporarily and they had taken soil from home with them so the first dirt he ever stepped on was native Texan soil. While Earle definitely has strong roots in country, bluegrass and folk music, he definitely can rock with the best of them, often times backed by his band the Dukes. I believe Steve Earle to be one of two of the best songwriters in American music right now and I’ll stand on my computer desk in my black running shoes and say it for all the world to hear!!!!!! For those of you that don’t know, I’m paraphrasing a famous quote where Steve said that Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his boots for all the world to hear. While Townes may be Earle’s biggest influence, Springsteen has played a huge role, directly and more obliquely through inspiration, in the career of Steve Earle.
Pancho and Lefty: Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt
After struggling in Nashville as a songwriter and musician for over 10 years, Earle finally recorded and released his first full length album in 1986, Guitar Town. And Bruce Springsteen had two direct impacts on the recording and success of that album. First, Earle has stated that he went to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street band in 1985 in Murphysborough, Tennessee and it was a revelation for him personally and professionally. He said it was obvious that Bruce had written Born In The USA to open the album which would open the concerts on that tour and he wanted to do the same with his album. Here are Earle’s own words, “I mean, I was gonna make a record that had sort of a theme that ran from beginning to end that was designed to put on the turntable and listen to the whole thing. I saw that tour two weeks before I started writing the songs and there’s no way in the world that wasn’t gonna influence this record. I mean, he opened with “Born In the USA. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen to this day and it influenced me as a performer for the rest of my career. I’ve always been a very unapologetic Bruce Springsteen fan.”
The second connection between Springsteen and the success of Guitar Town is the fact that a few months after the album was released, Springsteen walked into a record store and bought a cassette copy of the album at the suggestion of Garry Tallent who knew a few guys in Steve’s band. Someone saw Springsteen buy the album, the news got printed in Billboard magazine, and the album sold out the existing 30,000 copies at the time and became a hit. Earle has stated that Springsteen’s endorsement of his record at the time greatly helped pave the way to a long, successful career.
Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby Now
Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, February 6, 1998. Sea Bright, New Jersey
My good friend Shawn Poole has mentioned to me that much like Springsteen who has stated he wrote Fire as a demo for Elvis Presley, Steve Earle wrote a song entitled Mustang Wine which was rumored to have been submitted to RCA as a demo for a Presley recording session around 1975. While we haven’t been able to confirm the accuracy of this, what we do know is that Elvis’ fellow Sun Record alumn Carl Perkins, who was a major early rock and roll influence, did record Mustang Wine in 1977. On February 6, 1998 at the Tradewinds in Sea Bright, New Jersey, Springsteen joined Steve Earle live on stage, only a few weeks after Carl Perkins had passed away. They played several songs together including Guitar Town, I Ain’t Ever Satisfied, Dead Flowers and a cover of Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby, a big hit for Perkins in the early Sun Record days.
A Land of Hopeful Wanderers
Over the years, I’ve walked into a lot of record stores and bought all the records of both of these great artists. One of the things that has struck me is their uncanny ability to write songs and record albums that speak to the times around us and what is going on in our nation and the larger world around us in a timely, prescient manner. Several of their albums have been released within a relatively close period of time and have had common themes, and some even have very common songs. One topic that has been important to both of them is our nation’s history of immigrants and the role they have played in the successes and failures of our nation. In 2010, Springsteen received the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award award which honors Americans whose families came through the Port of New York and Ellis Island and said, “With all the immigrant furor out there, it’s good to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants, of hopeful wanderers. And we cannot know who is coming across our borders today, whose story will add a significant page to the American story. Who will work hard, who will raise a family, whose new blood will strengthen the good fabric holding our nation together.”
In 2006 as part of the Seeger Sessions project, Springsteen wrote a new song American Land and in 2007, Earle released Washington Square Serenade which includes City of Immigrants. In Earle’s song, he sings, ” All of us are immigrants, every daughter,every son. River flows out and sea rolls in, washing away nearly all of my sins, living in a city of immigrants.” American Land was inspired by a poem written by immigrant steel worker Andrew Kovaly set to music by Pete Seeger and he writes of the nation’s ideals and hopes of the masses, “There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, there’s gutters lined in song. Dear I hear the beer flows through the faucets all night long. There’s treasure for the taking for any hard working man who will make his home in the American Land.” I’d like to dedicate this next set to fellow E Street Radio listener and frequent caller Patrick from Chicago who immigrated to America in 1985 from Ireland looking for a better life for himself and his family.
One Of These Days I’m Gonna Lay This Hammer Down
Some hard travellin’ troubadours: Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie
Pete Seeger, musician, folk music archivist, social activist, is one artist that both Springsteen and Earle have been inspired by, and each recorded and performed with him before he passed away last year. In 2012, both artists recorded with Seeger on his album A More Perfect Union, Springsteen on God’s Counting On You, God’s Counting On Me and Earle on This Old Man Revisited. The connections between them all goes back to the music of Woody Guthrie who chronicled the lives of those suffering around him during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the echoes of which have carried throughout the country to this day. Pete Seeger sang and recorded with Woody and picked up Woody’s spirit of activism and carried on his musical legacy. In his classic If I Had A Hammer, Pete sings about hammering out love between brothers and sisters. He sings about ringing his bell in the morning and evening. He sings about singing his song all over the land. And he sings about having a hammer of justice, a bell of freedom and a song of love. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle have been asking the same questions as those earlier artists, and in their observations and recordings, they point out to their fans and listeners the problems they see around us and in essence, ask us what we are willing or able to try to help solve them. It’s like in Death To My Hometown when Springsteen sings “now get yourself a song to sing and sing until you’re done, yeah sing it hard and sing it well.” What all of these artists ask us to do is find our song whatever that may be, not in song or music necessarily but in whatever creative ways we are capable of, and to take action and help each other get through the hard times. These next songs best exemplify the work and music that continues the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and countless others who have used music to push the national conversation along whether on social justice, homelessness, hunger, crime and punishment, government or war. Springsteen recorded Woody Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullabye for the album Give Us Your Poor and includes background vocals and banjo by Seeger.
I’d like to dedicate these songs to my grandfathers Robert Samuel Hilligoss and Hubert Barr, one who served in the USMC during WWII and the other who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Both were men who came from hard backgrounds but who served their country in a time of need, worked hard their whole live to give their kids and families a better life and carried themselves with pride and dignity no matter the circumstances.
Steve Earle and Pete Seeger
Burning Down My Hometown
As their careers have continued, Springsteen and Earle have expanded their musical styles and songwriting topics to include matters of local, national, and international levels. Back in 1999, Earle recorded his excellent bluegrass album, The Mountain, with the Del McCoury Band. Six years later, after being asked to participate in a Pete Seeger tribute album, Springsteen formed a band that became the Seeger Sessions Band which he used to record many traditional folk and American classics from the Seeger/American catalog. While Springsteen was recording and releasing The Rising and Magic that spoke to our post 9/11 times including wars overseas and the costs to the troops and families back home as well as the lives of the people in those countries, Earle was recording and releasing the albums Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now, Washington Square Serenade and I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which covered many of the same topics in an ardent tone. Springsteen’s release in 2012 of Wrecking Ball chronicled what had happened to the country since the economic meltdown of 2008 with its impact on hundreds of millions of citizens, their families, lives and bank accounts. In 2013, Earle released the Low Highway which also spoke power to the state of the country’s citizens and their plight to make ends meet and for those citizens who remain ‘Invisible.’ In Springsteen’s song Death To My Hometown, his protagonist warns his friends, coworkers and neighbors that the vultures are here to pick their bones and beseeches them to do something about it, personified by the sound of a gun being loaded followed by a hearty….Hey!!!! In Earle’s song Burning It Down, his protagonist sits in his pickup truck in his hometown thinking about burning down the local WalMart using a homemade bomb because “things will never be the same around here.” Both characters feel overwhelmed by mysterious, outside forces that don’t have individual names and faces, but they want to take action and regain some semblance of control over their lives.
People lining up for something to eat, and the ghosts of America watching me along the low highway
There’s A Dirty Wind Blowing
In 2004, Earle released The Revolution Starts Now and in 2007, Springsteen released Magic.Both albums play as a scorched earth take on the first GWB administration, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the treatment of the soldiers and the citizens of those countries affected by the decisions of our nation’s “leaders”. On Magic, songs including Long Walk Home, Devil’s Arcade and Last To Die are essential listening for understanding the mindset and psychology of what was happening at the time. One line from Long Walk Home has been ingrained in my mind from the first time I heard it which may be one of his greatest of all time, “That flag flying over the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” The rage and condemnation are openly at a boil throughout both albums. While varying in styles, tempos and lyrical content, they both hold a magnifying glass to the horrors of what is happening and what has been lost along the way including our constitutional freedoms, lives, and spirits. Earle writes in the liner notes to The Revolution Starts Now, “The Constitution of the United States of America is a REVOLUTIONARY document in every sense of the word. It was designed to evolve, to live, and to breathe like the people that it governs. It is, ingeniously, and perhaps conversely, resilient enough to change with the times in order to meet the challenges of its third century and rigid enough to preserve the ideals that inspired its original articles and amendments. As long as we are willing to put in the work required to defend and nurture this remarkable invention of our forefathers, then I believe with all my heart that it will continue to thrive for generations to come. Without our active participation, however, the future is far from certain. For without the lifeblood of the human spirit even the greatest documents produced by humankind are only words on paper and parchment, destined to yellow and crack and eventually crumble to dust.”
We All Walk The Long Road: Dead Man Walking Soundtrack
Swing Low, swing low and carry me home
Another interesting connection between Springsteen and Earle is that both artists were asked to write songs for the movie Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and tackled the hard topics of class, violence, murder, and capital punishment. Springsteen wrote and recorded Dead Man Walkin’ and Earle wrote and recorded the superlative Ellis Unit One. Another artist who recorded for the soundtrack was Johnny Cash, who heavily influenced Bruce’s writings during The River and Nebraska sessions. Johnny wrote In Your Mind for the soundtrack and Steve Earle who had been away from recording for a period of time while he worked his way through some dark days, came into the studio with Johnny and played rhythm guitar and got to duplicate Luther Perkins signature chicka boom guitar pattern on the song. Earle has said that when he walked into the studio, Johnny Cash was sitting at a table waiting for him with a picnic basket and instead of trying to talk to him about his recent troubles, Johnny simply reached for the basket and asked, “Hey Steve, you want some tenderloin and biscuits June made this morning?” Earle said he will be forever grateful to Johnny Cash and that moment in which Johnny didn’t push the issue a lot of other people wanted to talk about, and just let it play it out with his normal grace and humility.
Is There Anybody Out There, Deliver Me From Nowhere
Are you tuning in and turning on?
I want to close this out with a cover of State Trooper performed by Earle from Austin City Limits in which he introduces the song by saying, “This one was written by a pretty good hillbilly singer from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.” On Magic’s Radio Nowhere, Springsteen sings of trying to find his way home but only hearing a drone bouncing off a satellite that is crushing the last long American night and wondering if there is anyone alive out there. From Washington Square Serenade, Earle sings on his song Satellite Radio, about wondering is there anyone out there…one two three…on the satellite radio and at the galaxy’s end where the stars burn bright are you tunin’ in and turnin’ on, and he begs some greater power to listen to him kindle the spark and answer his prayer. His lyrics reminded me a lot of the driver in State Trooper with his thoughts of radio’s jammed up with talk show stations, ‘It’s just talk, talk, talk till you lose your patience. Somebody out there, listen to my last prayer. Hi ho silver-o deliver me from nowhere.’ Earle’s version makes me think this is what State Trooper might have sounded like if Springsteen had recorded an electric, studio version with the E Street Band instead of the acoustic version we have on the album. We fans have heard of there being “electric Nebraska” recordings out there, and unless Springsteen digs deeeeeep into the vaults, we’ll never know the answer to that. But I do know that all of you are out there listening on the Satellite Radio…so on…. one…two….three, tune in and turn it up. Happy birthday Steve Earle, thank you for your music, artistry and voice. We’ll be out here waiting for your new album Terraplane set for release in a few months and maybe with any luck a new Springsteen album. Keep on rocking down Copperhead Road you hardcore troubadour.
State Trooper cover/Satellite Radio/Radio Nowhere
Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 5, 2007
New Jersey/Tennessee Blues
In 1989, after the Tunnel of Love and the Amnesty International tours were over, Bruce Springsteen decided to make some changes in his professional and private life and try another set of possibilities. He called the members of the E Street Band to let them know he was heading in a different direction without them. Then he moved from his beloved New Jersey, the area that had anchored his life and was the setting for many of his albums, characters and songs, and moved west. As we moved into the 21st Century,Steve Earle moved away from Nashville, his Guitar Town, where he had recorded and written for many years, and moved to New York City. In the liner notes of Washington Square Serenade, Earle writes, “As long as there’s been an East and a West, Easterners have been heading West in search of fortune and fame and Westerners have periodically appeared at the gates and reported that it is, indeed, big out there! Of course, most of those who took Horace Greeley at his word never returned and not everyone who came to the city stuck it out but one man’s frontier is, after all, another man’s limit and it takes all kinds and all manner of comings and goings to make a village. Now that I have finally arrived in my own personal city of dreams and walked streets with names that I’ve heard sung all my life, I still don’t have any answers.” Both artists wrote songs saying goodbye to their pasts and each reference their past lives and songs. In Going Cali, Springsteen writes, “Like his folks did back in 69, he crossed over at Needles and heard the Promised Land on the line.” In Tennessee Blues, Earle says goodbye to Guitar Town, both the town and his first album.
Nebraska: The scariest album ever!!!
Again, according to my friend Jeff Calaway, Steve Earle was teaching as a guest lecturer at a university, played Springsteen’s album Nebraska for the class and then described it as the scariest album he’s ever heard. He also referred to Bruce as a “pretty good hillbilly from New Jersey.”
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
In addition to all of his other talents, Steve Earle is one of the finest writers working today. In 2002, Earle published a collection of short stories entitle Doghouse Roses. In 2012, he published a novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which is written from the perspective of Doc Ebersol, the doctor blamed for the death of country music legend Hank Williams. It’s incredibly well written with lots of great characters and descriptions of San Antonio, highly recommended. His memoir I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye is to be published on June 30, 2015 and I’ll be first in line to get a copy.
One of my favorite passages from I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive:
“Lonely’s a temporary condition, a cloud that blocks out the sun for a spell and then makes the sunshine seem even brighter after it travels along. Like when you’re far away from home and you miss the people you love and it seems like you’re never going to see them again. But you will, and you do, and then you’re not lonely anymore. Lonesome’s a whole other thing. Incurable, Terminal. A hole in your heart you could drive a semi truck though. So big and so deep that no amount of money or whiskey or dope in the whole goddamn world can fill it up because you dug it yourself, and you’re digging it still, one lie, one disappointment, one broken promise at a time.”