Steve Earle & The Dukes
9081 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 90069
Steve Earle & The Dukes
Steve Earle, a man who doesn’t mind telling a story, was talking about the first thing Guy Clark ever said to him.
“It was 1974, I was 19 and I had just hitch-hiked from San Antonio to Nashville,” Earle said in mid-Texas-cum-Greenwich Village drawl. “Back then if you wanted to be where the best songwriters were, you had to go to Nashville. There were a couple of places where you could get on stage, play your songs. They let you have two drafts, or pass the hat, but you couldn’t do both.
“If you were from Texas, and serious, Guy Clark was a king. Everyone knew his songs, ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train,’ ‘LA Freeway,’ he’d been singing them before they came out on Old No. 1 i n 1975.”
“So I was pretty excited when I went into the club and the bartender, a friend of mine says, ‘Guy’s here.’ I wanted him to hear me play. I was doing some of my earliest songs, ‘Ben McCullough’ and ‘The Mercenary Song.’ But he was in the pool room and when I go in there the first thing he says to me is `I like your hat.’”
While it was a pretty cool hat, Earle remembers, “worn in just right with some beads I fixed up around it,” Clark did eventually hear his songs. A few months later he was playing bass in Guy’s band.
“Now, I am a terrible bass player...but I was the kid, and that was what the kid did. I took over for Rodney Crowell. At that time Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ was a top ten hit, which was amazing, a six and half minute story song on the radio. So Guy said, ‘we’re story song writers, why not us?’ So we went out to cash in on the big wave.”
The success of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ was not replicated, but Earle reports that being the 19-year-old bass player in Guy Clark’s band was “a gas.” At least until Earle went into a bar and left the bass in the back seat of his VW bug, from which it was promptly stolen. “It was a nice Fender Precision bass that belonged to Guy, the kind of thing that would be worth ten grand now. He wasn’t so happy about that.”
More than forty years later, Steve Earle, just turned 64, no longer wears a cowboy hat. “It was more than all the hat acts,” Steve contended. “My grandmother told me it was impolite to wear a
hat indoors.” As for Guy Clark, he’s dead, passed away in 2016 after a decade long stare-down with lymphoma. But Earle wasn’t ready to stop thinking about his friend and mentor.
“No way I could get out of doing this record,” Steve said when we talked over the phone from Charlotte, North Carolina, that night’s stop on Earle’s ever peripatetic road dog itinerary. “When I get to the other side, I didn’t want to run into Guy having made the TOWNES record and not one about him.”
Townes van Zandt (subject of Earle’s 2009 Townes) a nd Guy Clark were “like Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to me,” Steve said. The mercurial Van Zandt (1944-1997) who once ordered his teenage disciple to chain him to a tree in hopes that it would keep him from drinking, was the On The Road q uicksilver of youth. Clark, 33 at the time Earle met him, was a longer lasting, more mellow burn.
“When it comes to mentors, I’m glad I had both,” Earle said. “If you asked Townes what’s it all about, he’d hand you a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee . If you asked Guy the same question, he’d take out a piece of paper and teach you how to diagram a song, what goes where. Townes was one of the all-time great writers, but he only finished three songs during the last fifteen years of his life. Guy had cancer and wrote songs until the day he died...He painted, he built instruments, he owned a guitar shop in the Bay Area where the young Bobby Weir hung out. He was older and wiser. You hung around with him and knew why they call what artists do disciplines. Because he was disciplined.”
“ GUY w asn’t really a hard record to make,” Earle said. “We did it fast, five or six days with almost no overdubbing. I wanted it to sound live...When you’ve got a catalog like Guy’s and you’re only doing sixteen tracks, you know each one is going to be strong.”
When he was making TOWNES, Earle recorded “Pancho and Lefty” first; it was a big record, covered over by no less than Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan. “You had to go into the bar and right away knock out the biggest guy in the room,” Earle recalled.
With GUY i t was a different process. Clark didn’t have that one career-defining hit, but he wasn’t exactly unknown. “Desperados,” “LA Freeway” were pre-“Americana” style hits. “New Cut Road” charted for Bobby Bare and was recorded by Johnny Cash. “Heartbroke” was a # 1 country record for Ricky Skaggs in 1982. But when you added it up, Clark’s songs wove together into variegated life tapestry, far more than the sum of the parts.
Earle and his current, perhaps best ever, bunch of Dukes take on these songs with a spirit of reverent glee and invention. The tunes are all over the place and so is the band, offering max energy on such disparate entries as the bluegrass rave-up “Sis Draper” and talking blues memoir of “Texas 1947.” Earle’s raw vocal on the sweet, sad “That Old Time Feeling” is heartbreaking, sounding close enough to the grave as to be doing a duet with his dead friend.
You can hear little hints of where Earle came from. The stark “Randall Knife” has the line “a better blade that was ever made was probably forged in Hell,” which wouldn’t be out of place in a Steve Earle song. Also hard to beat is “The Last Gunfighter,” a sardonic western saga to which Earle offers a bravura reading of the chorus: “the smell of the black powder smoke and the stand in the street at the turn of joke.”
But in the end GUY leads the listener back to its beginning, namely Guy Clark, which is what any good “tribute” should do.
Indeed, it was a revelation to dial up a video of Guy Clark singing “Desperados Waiting For A Train” on Austin City Limits sometime in the 1980’s. Looking as handsome as any man ever was in his bluegrass suit and still brown, flowing hair, Clark sings of a relationship between a young man and an older friend. Saying how the elder man “taught me how to drive his car when he was too drunk to,” the young narrator describes a halcyon fantasy in which he and friend were always “desperados waiting for a train.” As time passes, however, the young man despairs. To him, his friend is “one on the heroes of this country.” So why is he “dressed up like some old man?”
Steve Earle delivers these lines well, as he always does. But the author of “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “Transcendental Blues” and a hundred more masterpiece songs, would be the first to tell you it is one thing to perform “Desperados Waiting For Train” and another to be its creator. There are plenty of covers better than the original. But “Desperados...” will forever reside with Guy Clark, the songwriter singing his song, just him and his guitar. That is the main thing GUY has to tell you: to remember the cornerstone, never forget where you came from.
There was another reason, Earle said, he couldn’t “get out of” making GUY. “You know,” he said, “as you live your life, you pile up these regrets. I’ve done a lot of things that might be regrettable, but most of them I don’t regret because I realize I couldn’t have done anything else at the time.”
“With GUY, however, there was this thing. When he was sick---he was dying really for the last ten years of his life---he asked me if we could write a song together. We should do it ‘for the grandkids,’ he said. Well, I don’t know...at the time, I still didn’t co-write much, then I got busy. Then Guy died and it was too late. That, I regret.”
Earle didn’t think making GUY paid off some debt, as if it really could. Like the Townes record, Guy is a saga of friendship, its ups and downs, what endures. It is lucky for us that Earle remembers and honors these things, because like old friends, GUY is a diamond.
Don't bother asking The Mastersons where they're from. Brooklyn, Austin, Los Angeles, Terlingua; they've called each home in just the last few years alone. If you really want to get to know this husband-and-wife duo, the better question to ask is where they're going. Perhaps more than any other band playing today, The Mastersons live on the road, perpetually in motion and always creating. Movement is their muse. On tour, in the unpredictable adventures and characters they cross, in the endless blur of skylines and rest stops and dressing rooms and hotels, that's where they find their greatest inspiration, where they hone their art, and where they crafted their brilliant new album, Transient Lullaby.
"When you travel like we do, if your antenna is up, there's always something going on around you," reflects guitarist/singer Chris Masterson. "Ideas can be found everywhere. The hardest thing to find is time."
For the last seven years, The Mastersons have kept up a supremely inexorable touring schedule, performing as both the openers for Steve Earle and as members of his band, The Dukes, in addition to playing their own relentless slate of headline shows and festivals. It was Earle, in fact, who pushed the duo to record their acclaimed debut, Birds Fly South, in the first place.
"Before we hit the road with him in 2010, Steve said, 'You'd better have a record ready because I'm going to feature you guys during the show,'" remembers fiddler/tenor guitarist/singer Eleanor Whitmore. "We didn't even have a band name at the time. We were going through all these ideas and Steve suggested, 'Why don’t you just be The Mastersons, and that was that."
Upon its release in 2012, Birds Fly South was a breakout critical hit on both sides of the pond, with Uncut awarding the album 9/10 stars and Esquire dubbing The Mastersons one of the “Bands You Need To Know Right Now”. Two years later, they followed it up with Good Luck Charm, premiered by the NY Times and praised by Mother Jones for its "big-hearted lyrics, tight song structures, and sweetly intertwined harmonies." Pop Matters ranked it "among the top Americana releases of 2014," while American Songwriter called it "a perfect soundtrack for a summer of warm nights and hot, lazy days," and the Austin Chronicle praised the band's "spunky wit and rare measure of emotional maturity." The album earned The Mastersons slots on NPR's Mountain Stage and at festivals around the world, from San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to Australia's Byron Bay Bluesfest.
With endless touring came new levels of comfort and confidence, and when it was time to record Transient Lullaby, The Mastersons knew they wanted to take a different approach than their first two releases. The band set up shop at Arlyn Studios in Austin, TX, where Chris shared production duties with longtime friend and collaborator George Reiff (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Band of Heathens). Together, they chased a sound that was subtler and more evocative, deeper and more contemplative.
"A lot of what we listen to when we have some rare time off is what we consider late night music," explains Chris, who previously played guitar with Son Volt and Jack Ingram among others. "The last record was bright and jangly and we wanted this one to be vibey and dark. A lot of the stuff is very performance-based and not at all fussed with. We've grown so much more comfortable in our skin that we really weren't trying to sound like anyone other than ourselves this time around."
"We've had a lot of time and a lot of miles to refine our sound and our style of singing," adds Eleanor, whose resume includes work with Regina Spektor and Angus & Julia Stone. "I think the depth of our songwriting has really grown, too. Part of the time we're writing on a tour bus with Steve Earle, and the bar for poetry is pretty high when you're within earshot of one of the greatest songwriters alive."
Rich with Eleanor's stirring string arrangements and Chris's masterful guitar work, the songs on Transient Lullaby more than live up to the challenge. The album opens with "Perfect," a loping duet written partially in Washington, DC, and partially in Newcastle, England, that paints a portrait of two broken lovers who still manage to find a strange optimism in this challenging world. Spare and affecting, the song puts the spotlight on the duo's intoxicating vocal harmonies and makes for an ideal entry point into an album full of characters facing down difficulty and darkness with all the grit and humility they can muster. "Fight," written in a downtown Cleveland hotel, is a wry wink at the battlefield of marriage ("I don't wanna fight with anyone else but you"), while the fingerpicked "Highway 1" twists and turns on a California road trip through an emotional breakup.
"Life's not easy," reflects Chris. "It's hard for everybody, and I don’t see it getting any easier. All you can hope for yourself is grace when walking through it, and someone to prop you up when you need a little help."
Though it's a deeply personal album, Transient Lullaby is not without its political moments. The Mastersons found themselves on tour in Lexington, KY, during the height of Kim Davis' obstinate stand against the Supreme Court's same sex marriage decision, and so they penned the infectious "You Could Be Wrong" in a dressing room before taking the stage with "Love Wins" draped across their guitars. "This Isn't How It Was Supposed To Go"—a cosmic country duet written in Cologne, Germany—has taken on new layers of political meaning in 2017, while "Don't Tell Me To Smile" is a tongue-in-cheek feminist anthem, and the gorgeous, slow-burning "Fire Escape"—which came to life in a hockey rink locker room in Alberta, Canada—suggests that the only solution to a polarized world of fear and distrust is to find strength and guidance in our loved ones.
"As we look at the world political landscape, global warming, a refugee crisis and the uncertain times we’re all living in, rather than lose hope, we look to each other," Chris says. "It’s a little brighter than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but not much."
Ultimately, the road is at the core of everything The Mastersons do. "Happy When I'm Movin'" reflects their constant need for forward momentum, both physically and emotionally, and the title track paints the pair as "pilgrims of the interstate" on an endless voyage. "No I don’t unpack my bag / Traveling from town to town," they sing in beautiful harmony. "Set ’em up and knock ’em down / Where there’s work and songs to sing / You’ll know the place where I’ll be found / If you don’t want to be alone / Then come along."
For The Mastersons, all that matters is where they're headed, and the songs they'll write when they get there.