Kicking open the doors of Celtic Connections in his own inimitable style, Steve Earle shows that age and sobriety have not mellowed him, as Ninian Dunnett discovers
You’ll know where Steve Earle lives if you can picture the famous cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Just up that New York street where Dylan huddled against the snow with Suzie Rotolo in 1962 is the apartment Earle shares with his wife, the beautiful singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. It’s a new life for the Texan after many years in Nashville, celebrated in the title and the songs on his recent release, Washington Square Serenade.
Twenty-one years after his debut, Guitar Town, this is a spiritual homecoming for a man who has even heard kids strumming one of his songs in Washington Square park. Greenwich Village still resonates with the history of the 60s folk boom which underpins all of today’s roots music, and Earle is in his element.
‘This is where I was heading all those years ago before I got sidetracked,’ he says. ‘This is where what I do was invented.’
Fit, eating well and cigarette-free – and bearing an unlikely resemblance to the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg – Earle in his 50s is playing the long game at last.
‘I finally managed to get into my thick skull that I’ve missed out on the good-looking corpse bit,’ laughs the one time-alcoholic and heroin addict.
The change is made explicit on an album that bids ‘Goodbye Guitar Town’ and romances his new wife in a language more personal and tender than his recent records. The move to New York has also nudged him into the world of the home studio, and a fusion of folk music and beats on songs that include a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Way Down in the Hole’.
‘I thought I was making demos, and then I realised that it might actually be the record,’ the troubadour says proudly. ‘Arguably I came up with a pretty hip hop version of that song.’
Earle will be back in Nashville this Christmas to see his parents and son, and to produce an acoustic Joan Baez album, the latest in a frenzy of creative enterprises that includes a novel, acting in the HBO series The Wire (for which his version of the Waits song is the theme) and his own satellite radio show.
‘A thing I learned in recovery is that there are other ways of dealing with boredom than getting high,’ he says. ‘There’s getting off of your ass and doing something you’ve never done before.’
There will be new things, too, in his upcoming solo shows. The plan is to begin without a setlist (‘So you could hear just about fu**ing anything’), and then have a DJ working the new beats during the second half of the set. ‘We’ve tried it out at a festival in Seattle, and then Austin City Limits, and it’s fun, it’s really cool.’
Earle may be enough of a traditionalist to prize his connection with the geography of a Dylan sleeve, but he is unapologetic about moving forward.
‘A lot of people think I should be doing Copperhead Road for the rest of my life,’ he says, referencing his rocky success of 1988. ‘I’m more concerned with the couple of hundred thousand people out there who are prepared to go on the journey with me. In my business right now, holding your own is winning – and I’m proud of my audience.’
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Thu 17 Jan.