What I Learned From Steve Earle
The other night, we went to see Steve Earle and The Dukes. Because it is the 30th anniversary of Copperhead Road’s release, they played all the songs from the album from the first one, Copperhead Road, to the last song, Nothing But a Child, in order and Steve Earle even told us when they started to play side two. “Because that’s how we used to record ‘em,” he explained.
We were lucky to enjoy the concert in a theatre with a maximum capacity of 550. The Vic Juba Theatre is as comfortable as it is beautiful, and it was an intimate, memorable show from every seat.
Listen to me read this post:
By the time I left the building, I realized I learned a lot from Steve Earle that night.
It’s necessary to blink.
Here’s one thing I learned during the performance. We had third-row seats and for two hours, I stared at Steve Earle. I was so star struck that I forgot to blink. It’s necessary to blink. At the end of the night, my eyeballs felt like I’d washed them with sand. This discomfort was very worth it, though. I didn’t miss a second of seeing Steve Earle.
Good storytelling is crucial.
Steve Earle’s opening act was a couple of singer/musicians who also perform with his band. They are very talented musicians and the woman has an extraordinary voice perfectly suited to bluegrass music, but they are not storytellers. Because of this, they are not exceptionally great songwriters and, that evening, they had a difficult time engaging their audience.
Strong storytelling makes for good song writing and it draws people in. If you’re a performer to whom nothing interesting has ever happened (as seemed to be the case with the opening act), just lie to me. Make something up. I’m okay with this. I do it all the time. I don’t need a true story from you; I want to be entertained. That’s why I bought a ticket.
Steve Earle, on the other hand, is a fine example of a songwriter and storyteller. The first lines of his songs pull us right in, as in Copperhead Road:
Well my name’s John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before
You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here
He only came to town about twice a year
He’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
Everybody knew that he made moonshine
~ lyrics written by Steve Earle
The first few lines tug us into the narrative and make us want to hear the whole story. He made moonshine? That’s so bad and so awesome! Tell me more! It’s hard to hook an audience this way, but it’s what skilled songwriters like Steve Earle do.
Respect is sexy.
Throughout his concert, Steve Earle conveyed respect for women and minority groups. He showed respect for Canada and for Canadians. This respect was both refreshing and attractive.
Play to your audience.
Of course, when Steve Earle and The Dukes left the stage the first time, we all stood up and clapped to see if we could get some more. Steve Earle came back to centre stage alone with an acoustic guitar. In a spotlight, he picked and sang Ian Tyson’s Summer Wages, an iconic Canadian song. When it was done he told us, “That’s to remind us where we are.”
Steve Earle understands the importance of making an audience feel like we’re not just like every other audience he’s seen every other night on the tour. He knows how to make people feel special. I don’t think this would be easy when every day he faces a new group of people that look and sound astonishingly like the crowd of people from the night before.
Life on the road takes a toll on your personal life.
Steve Earle confessed that he’s a romantic. He told us about his own parents who were married for fifty-three years. “Now that’s romantic.” He also confessed that he’s been married several times. Personally, I don’t care if he’s been married twenty times or who he’s been married to. His life is his life, and it’s none of my business.
But I could tell he did feel bad that he never attained that long term marriage like his folks had. The thing is, though, his parents weren’t performers who were on the road all the time and who experienced some pretty heady success in their careers. That’s difficult. We admire fame and success in this western culture, but they aren’t blessings. They’re obstacles to peace and contentment.
Steve Earle seemed a bit heartbroken, all right, and he expressed disappointment with the way his personal life turned out. I admire what he’s made of it. It’s hard a road, but he’s walked it honestly.
Say thanks and give credit.
Steve Earle was careful to give credit to the Oakridge Boys for supporting the recording of Copperhead Road. He went so far as to say, “Without the Oakridge Boys there’d’ve been no Copperhead Road.”
Many times throughout the show he thanked his musicians and his crew. He gave credit to the folks who helped him to write songs and enabled him to record those works. Steve Earle constantly referred to the talent of the couple who were the opening act and members of his band. Respect is sexy and so is saying thanks.
I had nothing new to say to him.
After the show, we ventured up to the concourse level where they were selling T-shirts and CDs. Steve Earle had told the audience twice during the show that he would be out to sign merchandise and anyone’s girlfriend. We bought a CD but we didn’t wait with the other hopefuls. I knew I had nothing to say to Steve Earle that he hadn’t already heard a million times before. I would’ve said the same thing as most, “Thank you, Steve Earle.”
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