The best advice Steve Earle ever received from the late legendary singer-songwriter Guy Clark: “You write with a pencil and a big eraser,” Earle says. “Don’t write with a pen, because if you’re doing it right you’re going to be erasing a lot. Songwriting is all editing.”
Earle, who as a youngster sought out Clark, scored an unforgettable 21st birthday present, playing bass with the legend during a show.
“Guy was very nice and took me under his wing,” Earle says. “I played bass a little bit, so I got to do it – I was just lucky.”
Earle admits he’s not a very good bass player, which is why his stint as Clark’s bassist may have ended so abruptly.
A few years ago, Earle released Townes, which pays tribute to another one of his mentors, country singer-songwriter icon Townes Van Zandt. So it was only fair that he paid tribute to Clark with his recently released Guy.
The record took about six days to make, without any overdubbing. It sounds like it was recorded live. “It was easy once I decided I didn’t have to please anybody but myself,” Earle says. “I chose the stuff I was most personally connected to – when you’ve got a catalog like Guy’s and you’re only doing 16 tracks, you know each one is going to be strong.”
From “Desperados Waiting for a Train” to “L.A. Freeway” to “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” Earle puts his alt-country rock stamp on the classic tunes without taking away any of Clark’s original shaping.
More than 40 years after finding Clark and Van Zandt as his mentors, Earle is considered a mentor to his own slew of rising singer-songwriters.
“[Songwriting] is empathy,” Earle says. “People don’t really care what you know or what you sang, they care about the part of your experience they can relate to and you share with the audience.”
Earle’s hard-hitting classic Americana record, Copperhead Road, which he calls his “post-Vietnam War album,” celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018.
“We are all children of the Vietnam War in one way or another,” Earle says. “Kids growing up now have their own war that’s fucked them up.”
The singer-songwriter says he doesn’t really think about why some of his records hit folks deeper than others:
“I just keep making records because it’s my job,” Earle says.
STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES 8pm Friday, Aug. 16. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $44-$88. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com