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We’ve all envisioned that off-chance encounter—when we rub elbows with our musical hero. You know the one: Their albums, their personal trials and tribulations, the instruments they wield—it all played a vital role in shaping our musical psyche. We look back at the experience tongue-tied and think: What the hell just happened?
For Canadian singer-songwriter (and friend of CME) Colter Wall, that encounter was with Steve Earle. And rest assured, his recollection of the meeting is crystal-clear. For one, the meeting inspired Earle to invite Wall to perform at his annual City Winery residency in Chicago on Jan. 9-10. Secondly—there are no gray areas, B.S. or regrets when Steve Earle makes a first impression.
Those who have never met Earle in person undoubtedly have done so through his music. From his breakout album Guitar Town, to the acclaimed Copperhead Road, to his personal introspective Train A’ Comin', Earle approaches songwriting, the world—everything—with an outlaw mentality and unabashed Texas honesty. The life ’n’ times of the legendary Steve Earle are as raw, battle-hardened and unadulterated as the tones of his beloved vintage guitars….which, by the way, he also owns in extremes (Earle owns more than 150 vintage acoustic instruments, including a ton of prewar Martins, 1940s National Resonators and vintage Gibson acoustic guitars.)
In celebration of Earle’s 62nd birthday, we caught up with Wall after the City Winery gig to pay collective homage to the man himself. Wall talks about his first run-in with Earle, their love of great records, and the shared no-nonsense mentality that is so evident in both of their music.
Earle is renowned for his love of vintage Martin and Gibson guitars much like this 1921 0-21 (left) and 1870s 0-28 parlor.
First things first…how’d you discover Steve Earle?
I heard his bigger hits as a kid. I really started to dig in to his stuff when I was recording my first EP. He’s got this record Train A’ Comin’ and I dived real deep into that. I tried to “steal” as much as I could and string it all together. It just floored me.
I’d seen him a few times before I met him. I went to a few of his shows. Sometimes he’d play with a band, sometimes with the Dukes (& Duchesses), sometimes solo. Seeing him with an acoustic was amazing. He gives a lot of background and likes to tell a lot of stories, which I really appreciated hearing.
When did you meet Steve initially?
I met him a few months back in Nashville during this live streaming concert web series called “Skyville.” They booked me to play a couple of my songs, and Steve was on the bill with Emmylou Harris. Man, that was pretty wild. I was trying to leave him alone and respect his space, but I was so nervous because he’s one of my heroes. I was so intimidated.
Then, when everyone on the bill got on the stage to sing “The Pilgrim” by Del McCoury, we all kind of wandered offstage. He walked right up to me and started asking a bunch of questions. That was the first interaction. He expressed that he enjoyed my set, which was surreal. That’s it. That’s how I got the shows. Steve handpicks his openers and his guests. I was very lucky.
What elements of Steve’s style do you incorporate into your own music?
I look up to him chiefly as a songwriter. He’s brilliant. He comes from that scene—that whole crew of Texas songwriters, all those guys—Townes [Van Zandt], Guy [Clark], he’s friends with all those guys. He’s one of the last reminaining links to that world, and I’m obsessed. The sort music he comes from…it’s got a folk side—just great traditional American songs—mixed with a whole country influence.
What’s the best advice he’s given you? Any stories?
He turned me on to this new record I’ve been listening to! A guy named Willis Alan Ramsey. I was backstage at City Winery actually. They put us in the same green room, and I was backstage tuning up my guitar—playing [Doc Watson’s] “Deep River Blues.” We talked a lot about records, and from that he just brought the guy up organically. He's great.
What’s the interaction like offstage?
Even as a guitar player early on—listening to his records, listening online to trying to figure out how to play “Fort Worth Blues,” it was neat to tell him how much he has influenced me.
I’d talk to him about [the James Szalapski outlaw country documentary] Heartworn Highways. Little things like that. He does a song in the movie called “Darling, Commit Me,” and I know there’s footage of it. He’s never cut it on a record. So I asked him about it, and to my surprise he was receptive. We talked about everything—historical facts, about where I come from in Saskatchewan [Canada]—I was surprised…he knows a lot about it!
Steve isn’t a bullshitter. He says what he means. He likes to talk, and I just tried to soak it in.
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