Steve Earle

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Gaby Alter


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Steve Earle is not a man to lay idle. Since a stint in drug rehab pulled him out of a personal and career slump in the mid-'90s, the 48-year-old rock/country songwriter has been producing new work at a pace that would leave many younger artists in the dust. In the past eight years, he has put out eight albums, including last year's politically charged Jerusalem and a concert double-CD to accompany a documentary on Earle titled Just an American Boy.

The drug habit is about all that's rehabilitated about Earle. You get a picture of this on Just an American Boy, where, between songs, he talks on topics ranging from the death penalty to his hitchhiking days to the war in Iraq. He speaks with urgency and anger about the injustices he sees in the world around him and uses enough humor to keep his talks from becoming sanctimonious.

His message's urgency, in fact, sped up the recording and release of his last studio album, Jerusalem. Originally, Earle had hoped to take a break from his steady one-a-year output after finishing the 2000 Transcendental Blues. On top of that, he and co-producer/engineer Ray Kennedy (who together are known as the Twangtrust) had just moved their studio from their old building on Nashville's Music Row and hadn't yet finished setting things up in the new location just outside of town.

“And then September 11th happened, and I started writing these songs,” Earle says. “Releasing it in a timely fashion started becoming important to me. In other words, the material seemed perishable. So we just bumped up the timeline to my next record.” He and Kennedy got the new studio ready in time — but only just. “The wiring got finished at 4 o'clock in the morning the day before we started recording,” Kennedy reports.

Jerusalem's songs did indeed strike while the iron was very hot, addressing the state of the union a year after the terrorist attacks with Earle's characteristic bluntness. “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” was a snarling critique of political apathy, the healthcare system and the growing divide between the rich and poor (“We can just build a great wall around the country club to keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through”). “Ashes to Ashes” put current events in a kind of Biblical perspective, warning in a prophetic tone of the impermanence of even the mightiest civilizations (“Every tower ever built tumbles…and every idol ever raised falls”). The track that stirred serious controversy, however, was “John Walker Blues.” Written from the point of view of the young-American-turned-Taliban-soldier John Walker Lindh, the song was not an unsympathetic portrait of an alienated youth “raised on MTV” who turned to Islam for answers that a materialist culture wasn't providing. The song did not exonerate Lindh so much as it gave his choices a context, thereby humanizing his dilemma.

Musically, Jerusalem rocks and rolls as much as it rocks the boat. There's very little pretense about Earle personally, politically or musically, and the album's 11 tracks tend toward basic rockers with a country edge, with a few ballads thrown in to leaven the mix. It's a straightforward approach that's matched by the one he and Kennedy take in the studio.

“We go for the live performance,” Kennedy says. “Why go in with the attitude of, ‘This is just a scratch guitar track,’ or ‘This is just a scratch vocal’? I don't believe in that. I believe in, ‘Let's just really go for it!’ When people are encouraged to do that, they end up performing better than they think they can.” Kennedy cites Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which the Twangtrust helped produce, as a case in point. “Car Wheels is pretty much all live vocals. On her previous records, I don't think she ever did live vocals, but she went from 40,000 units to over a million.”

As you might expect from their “old-fashioned” style of recording, Earle and Kennedy are both die-hard analog lovers. The Twangtrust's studio is filled with vintage microphones, preamps, compressors and consoles. “Some of the things that are really cool about the pop records I love have to do with the so-called shortcomings of the analog recording process that sort of become musical,” Earle says. He cites The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Faces as bands whose recordings he's often tried to re-create sonically and make his own.

Before he began working with Kennedy in the mid-'90s, Earle was frustrated with the ability of digital media to accomplish this task. For instance, he admired the “over-driven, distorted” acoustic guitar sounds he found on The Beatles' Rubber Soul. “[I was] just trying to figure out how they did that, and why can't I make this expensive digital piece of s — t sound like that. I have nothing against digital,” he hastily adds. “There are people that are better at it than I am.”

For Earle's acoustic guitar sound, Kennedy used nickel-capsule Neumann KM56 microphones from the late '50s and early '60s. “The way acoustic guitars are recorded [in other studios], they're mostly clean,” Kennedy says. “We push them a little harder. I'll slam tape pretty hard and try to get the guitar to really respond so that you cannot just hear it, but feel it.” Kennedy and Earle also favored a Beatles-esque technique on some of their drum tracks, using Universal Audio 1176 compressors to emulate the sound the '60s group achieved with Fairchild limiters. It involved, according to Kennedy, “taking a lot of components of the mix and chaining them off to a pair of 1176s or an 1178, and then bringing that up into the mix so that the drums have this kind of continuous roar about them.”

To get Earle's vocal sound, Kennedy used a Fred Camron custom-modified Neumann U67 microphone, a Telefunken V-76 M Series preamp and an 1176. “I'm using it to pull the sound out of his throat, his chest,” Kennedy says of the compressor. “It makes the microphone more sensitive, and makes it really dig in and reach out for the character of the vocal.” Because the 1176 pulls in enough room sound and ambience, Kennedy didn't add reverb. “There isn't any reverb used on any of Steve's records, at least since I've been involved with him. It's all natural acoustics.”

With all of the components of the mix, Kennedy compressed things a lot so that they stand out: “Everything on the tape is a big, bold stroke. If it's not, it shouldn't be there. There's nothing subtle about Steve Earle records.”

Much thought went into Earle's instrument selection, as well. He and Kennedy together own a collection of more than 300 guitars, which are actually hanging on pegs on the walls of the studio itself. “We haven't done it,” Earle says, “but if you soloed the room mics, then you'd hear all these guitars jangling around in the background.” Earle used a variety of electric guitars on Jerusalem, but stuck almost exclusively to a Dana Bourgeois acoustic guitar, because “it's almost the best new guitar I've ever bought.”

Their studio also has a large collection of snare drums. “We don't do one drum sound and stick with it,” Earle says. “We set up two drum kits at least. We've got a really old signal-tension kit and then the more modern great-sounding Gretsch kit, and then there's a rack right next to the drum kits that has, like, 15 snare drums, which we use every single one of. It's all about the song, the key it's in, the overall tonality of instruments around the drum.”

With Just an American Boy, the album released to accompany Amos Poe's documentary of the same name about Earle on tour, the goal was also capturing a live performance, this time outside of the studio. Poe had used low-quality mics during the shooting of the film, so the album was essentially a recapturing of the songs in later concerts. As with Jerusalem, Earle made the decision to do the album quickly, so there was little preparation time before the band went on the road, nor was there the budget for a sound truck. So the Twangtrust resorted to digital technology. The band went out with a laptop, a copy of Digital Performer and some FireWire drives to capture the shows. The signal came directly out of the mixing console onto eight tracks in Performer.

Once back in the studio, Kennedy — in a rare move — took the tracks into Pro Tools and crossfaded songs to follow the film's sequence of songs. “It was the best way to mix songs from different shows,” he explains. “My biggest job on that record was to make it not sound like Pro Tools.” To achieve this, Kennedy broke out of each individual channel in Pro Tools to an analog console while mixing. “I use higher-quality D-to-A converters than Pro Tools has,” he explains. “And there's a lot of analog looping in between. Instead of using digital plug-ins, I'm using real 1176s and real APIs and Fairchilds. I'm using my normal mix gear, it's just that the source sound is being generated by Pro Tools.”

In the end, it came back to the thing that Kennedy and Earle both prize: the sound of a real, live band. “If you have great guitar sounds, great drum sounds, great vocal sounds, everything sounds really great, and you get the performance on top of that, then you've got a great-sounding record,” Kennedy says. “You have a record that's gonna have appeal, because it's gonna have an emotional quality to it because of the performance basis. It's not thought-out, it's not programmed, it's not intellectualized; it's just people playing together.”

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