It’s tough not to describe master songwriter Steve Earle’s upcoming residency at City Winery in sepia-toned language akin to that used by Woody Allen to describe a childhood in Sheepshead Bay. “I mean, it wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this,” wrote Allen for the main character of the 1987 movie Radio Days. ”But I remember it that way…because that was it at its most beautiful.”
In many ways, picturing the multi-Grammy Award winning Earle walking through a winter storm the four blocks from his Greenwich Village home to the City Winery to perform the songs that serve as his musical diary is just that type of beautiful. As fans of the man who calls himself “just a folk singer” know, Earle’s songbook ranges from tunes about his well-documented addictions to social injustice to his six wives to his not-long-ago divorce from musician Alison Moorer to his children, his mentors, and beyond. All of the inspiration Earle derived from the music of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Woody Guthrie has taught him how to take his private missteps, concerns, joys, and questions and translate them into musical stories that resonate with his fans.
“It’s my job. I go out and play songs for people. A lot of the songs make people feel better about themselves and their lives,” he tells the Voice. “And when you have a job like mine, being able to walk four blocks and sit down and sing is a true bonus…. I live in New York, so the world comes to me.”
True. But he goes to the world, too.
As he approaches his 61st birthday in January, he’s sober, divorced (again), the father of a young son (again), this time 5-year-old John Henry Earle, and still one of the most in-demand songwriters in the U.S. He’s constantly working in New York, Nashville, Chicago, on the West Coast, and abroad.
Since he has been sober, he says, there isn’t a lot for him to do but work. There’s no other way to explain his ping-ponging: This month alone, he’ll move between residencies at City Wineries in New York, Nashville, and Chicago while completing Colvin and Earle, an album he’s recording with a fellow brilliant and once-tortured Grammy-winning musician: Shawn Colvin. He’s also finishing the biography he once vowed he would never write and in the process of completing his long-awaited country album, due out in 2017.
As chaotic as his work life sounds, it seems that Earle wouldn’t choose any other path. For one thing, the money keeps John Henry in a top school for autistic children. Moreover, Earle has never lost his passion for presenting new music and artists to his fans. The City Winery residencies allow him to do both.
“I always start with a list, and [organizers] give me another list, and there’s always one or two names on it that make he think, ‘Why I didn’t think of that!’” he says of the guests that will join him onstage. “These artists are great, and I want people to hear them and I want to play with them and maybe collaborate with them.”
Take Aiofe O’Donovan. Earle has wanted the 33-year-old folk singer — whose fans and collaborators range from Joan Baez to Chris Thile – to join him at a City Winery residency ever since he started doing them five years ago. She’ll join him during his first New York show, on January 2.
“She’s really, really good,” says Earle, echoing his public comments that liken O’Donovan to a young Joni Mitchell. “All of the artists are incredible.”
Other New York guests include outlaw-country artist Nikki Lane (January 11), country-rockabilly artist John Doe of X and the Knitters (January 19), and country singer Kevn Kinney of Drivn N Cryin (January 27).
These and all of the guests who will join him in Nashville and Chicago give Earle a chance to showcase songs that range from influences as divergent as blues (such as from the 2015 release Terraplane) to Americana (including his iconic 1986 album Guitar Town) to rock-infused (such as the 1990 album The Hard Way).
The connective tissue among all his work, says Earle, is New York. Sure, he was raised in Texas and can draw plenty of influences back to the Lone Star State, but he’s proud that Patti Smith has said he is a true New Yorker. He talks about New York as a city akin to the cave of the sleeping sharks near Cancún, Mexico, where sharks use bubbles from underground springs to breathe, allowing them to “sleep” without moving to take in oxygen.
“New York is like that,” he says. “If I get my wings clipped and can’t travel anymore, [can’t] see Paris every sixteen months, what better place is there to be? I live two doors down from where [Beat Generation poet] Gregory Corso was born. My job was invented in this neighborhood. It’s where I belong.”
Steve Earle’s New York City Winery Residency on takes place January 2, 11, 19 and 27..