Stagecoach 2015: Steve Earle on country music’s maverick tradition

Steve Earle performs Friday at the Stagecoach festival in Indio.
Steve Earle performs Friday at the Stagecoach festival in Indio.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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This year’s edition of Stagecoach was Texas maverick singer and songwriter Steve Earle’s first appearance at the sprawling country music festival in Indio, with a set that dipped into his latest album, “Terraplane Blues,” as well as going back nearly to the beginning of his recording career with the likes of “Copperhead Road.”

Relaxing backstage in his trailer after his performance Friday, Earle, 60, noted that the new album “was No. 1 for 10 weeks on the Americana chart, which is an airplay chart. We’ve never had one stay there that long.”




An earlier version of this post listed the title of Earle’s song as “Copperhead Blues.” It is Copperhead Road.”


“The things that we have to judge it by are so different now,” he said, alluding to the steady downturn in sales of both physical CDs and digital downloads.

Ever the firebrand, Earle said “Mainstream country music has become … boy I’m going to get in trouble for this,” he said, shaking his head and wearing a determined smile before finishing the thought, “it’s become music for 20-somethings who can’t deal with hip-hop for whatever reason.

“When I was on country radio, it was an older radio format,” he said, “and I was sort of at the beginning of radio looking for younger audiences.”

Earle came to the forefront in 1986 with the release of his debut album “Guitar Town,” during a brief window between the “Urban Cowboy” craze of the early 1980s and the arrival of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and other so-called “hat acts” of the early 1990s.

Earle and others who surfaced during that period — including Dwight Yoakam, k.d.lang, the Mavericks, the Desert Rose Band, among others — were branded “New Traditionalists,” for their literate songwriting and often unconventional thematic perspectives, usually paired with music informed by respect for country tradition.


Or, as Earle phrased it: “The credibility scare of the mid-’80s.”

At Stagecoach this year, several younger-generation performers occupy a similar space today — Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, the Osborne Brothers — raising the question of whether there’s a renaissance underway for a maverick sensibility in country to counterbalance the bro-country, party-hearty strain that’s been flourishing for the last three or four years.

“I just put Kacey’s new single on my [Sirius XM ‘Outlaw Country’] radio show,” Earle said. “She’s the real deal — she can write. It’s not a stylistic thing for me: I think Taylor Swift’s the real deal, and she can write. Sturgill Simpson is the real deal. People who are talking about whether he sounds like Waylon Jennings are missing the point. The guy can write, and that’s what’s important to me.”

Earle said that Saturday night he’ll be teaming with singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin and unveil some new material they’ve written and plan to perform together when they arrive back in Los Angeles for Stephen Stills’ third Light Up the Blues benefit for Autism Speaks. Stills’ longtime friend and collaborator Neil Young is headlining the show.

“I’ve played shows wih Neil over the years, and I’ve done Farm Aid a lot,” Earle said, referring to the family farmer benefit concert series hosted by Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp for the last 30 years. “But not so much with Stephen. I only met him a few years ago when we did some shows in Australia.”

Beyond a shared love for music, Earle said, he and Stills have in common their experience as parents of an autistic child. John Henry, the 5-year-old son of Earle and his ex-wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, “stopped speaking when he was 2.”

Earle pulled out his smartphone and shared videos of his son vocalizing while plucking on a ukulele he enjoys, which Earle characterized as encouraging.


After exploring the blues with “Terraplane Blues” and previous albums that have mined political-folk traditions, Earle said, “I’m going to make a country record next year. I’m making a record with Shawn Colvin, then I’m going to finish this record, which is about half done.

“All I can think of [to describe it] is that it’s maybe what I would have done after ‘Guitar Town’ if [former label boss] Jimmy Bowen hadn’t pissed me off,” he said. “I wrote some stuff for ‘Nashville’ because T Bone [Burnett, the show’s original music supervisor] asked me to. And Buddy [Miller, now the show’s music supervisor] asked me to write one, so it’s got me writing more country songs again.”

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