Steve Earle is not a man to lay idle. Since a stint in drug rehabpulled him out of a personal and career slump in the mid-’90s, the48-year-old rock/country songwriter has been producing new work at apace that would leave many younger artists in the dust. In the pasteight years, he has put out eight albums, including last year’spolitically charged Jerusalem and a concert double-CD toaccompany a documentary on Earle titled Just an AmericanBoy.
The drug habit is about all that’s rehabilitated about Earle. Youget a picture of this on Just an American Boy, where, betweensongs, he talks on topics ranging from the death penalty to hishitchhiking days to the war in Iraq. He speaks with urgency and angerabout the injustices he sees in the world around him and uses enoughhumor to keep his talks from becoming sanctimonious.
His message’s urgency, in fact, sped up the recording and release ofhis last studio album, Jerusalem. Originally, Earle had hoped totake a break from his steady one-a-year output after finishing the 2000Transcendental Blues. On top of that, he andco-producer/engineer Ray Kennedy (who together are known as theTwangtrust) had just moved their studio from their old building onNashville’s Music Row and hadn’t yet finished setting things up in thenew location just outside of town.
“And then September 11th happened, and I started writing thesesongs,” Earle says. “Releasing it in a timely fashionstarted becoming important to me. In other words, the material seemedperishable. 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 daybefore we started recording,” Kennedy reports.
Jerusalem‘s songs did indeed strike while the iron was veryhot, addressing the state of the union a year after the terroristattacks with Earle’s characteristic bluntness. “Amerika v. 6.0(The Best We Can Do)” was a snarling critique of politicalapathy, the healthcare system and the growing divide between the richand poor (“We can just build a great wall around the country clubto keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through”).“Ashes to Ashes” put current events in a kind of Biblicalperspective, warning in a prophetic tone of the impermanence of eventhe mightiest civilizations (“Every tower ever builttumbles…and every idol ever raised falls”). The track thatstirred serious controversy, however, was “John WalkerBlues.” Written from the point of view of theyoung-American-turned-Taliban-soldier John Walker Lindh, the song wasnot an unsympathetic portrait of an alienated youth “raised onMTV” who turned to Islam for answers that a materialist culturewasn’t providing. The song did not exonerate Lindh so much as it gavehis choices a context, thereby humanizing his dilemma.
Musically, Jerusalem rocks and rolls as much as it rocks theboat. There’s very little pretense about Earle personally, politicallyor musically, and the album’s 11 tracks tend toward basic rockers witha country edge, with a few ballads thrown in to leaven the mix. It’s astraightforward approach that’s matched by the one he and Kennedy takein the studio.
“We go for the live performance,” Kennedy says.“Why go in with the attitude of, ‘This is just a scratchguitar track,’ or ‘This is just a scratch vocal’? Idon’t believe in that. I believe in, ‘Let’s just really go forit!’ When people are encouraged to do that, they end upperforming better than they think they can.” Kennedy citesLucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which theTwangtrust helped produce, as a case in point. “Car Wheelsis pretty much all live vocals. On her previous records, I don’t thinkshe ever did live vocals, but she went from 40,000 units to over amillion.”
As you might expect from their “old-fashioned” style ofrecording, Earle and Kennedy are both die-hard analog lovers. TheTwangtrust’s studio is filled with vintage microphones, preamps,compressors and consoles. “Some of the things that are reallycool about the pop records I love have to do with the so-calledshortcomings of the analog recording process that sort of becomemusical,” Earle says. He cites The Beatles, the Rolling Stonesand The Faces as bands whose recordings he’s often tried to re-createsonically and make his own.
Before he began working with Kennedy in the mid-’90s, Earle wasfrustrated 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 whycan’t I make this expensive digital piece of s — t sound likethat. 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-capsuleNeumann KM56 microphones from the late ’50s and early ’60s. “Theway acoustic guitars are recorded [in other studios], they’re mostlyclean,” Kennedy says. “We push them a little harder. I’llslam tape pretty hard and try to get the guitar to really respond sothat you cannot just hear it, but feel it.” Kennedy andEarle also favored a Beatles-esque technique on some of their drumtracks, using Universal Audio 1176 compressors to emulate the sound the’60s group achieved with Fairchild limiters. It involved, according toKennedy, “taking a lot of components of the mix and chaining themoff to a pair of 1176s or an 1178, and then bringing that up into themix so that the drums have this kind of continuous roar aboutthem.”
To get Earle’s vocal sound, Kennedy used a Fred Camroncustom-modified Neumann U67 microphone, a Telefunken V-76 M Seriespreamp and an 1176. “I’m using it to pull the sound out of histhroat, his chest,” Kennedy says of the compressor. “Itmakes the microphone more sensitive, and makes it really dig in andreach out for the character of the vocal.” Because the 1176 pullsin enough room sound and ambience, Kennedy didn’t add reverb.“There isn’t any reverb used on any of Steve’s records, at leastsince I’ve been involved with him. It’s all naturalacoustics.”
With all of the components of the mix, Kennedy compressed things alot 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 subtleabout Steve Earle records.”
Much thought went into Earle’s instrument selection, as well. He andKennedy together own a collection of more than 300 guitars, which areactually hanging on pegs on the walls of the studio itself. “Wehaven’t done it,” Earle says, “but if you soloed the roommics, then you’d hear all these guitars jangling around in thebackground.” Earle used a variety of electric guitars onJerusalem, but stuck almost exclusively to a Dana Bourgeoisacoustic guitar, because “it’s almost the best new guitar I’veever bought.”
Their studio also has a large collection of snare drums. “Wedon’t do one drum sound and stick with it,” Earle says. “Weset up two drum kits at least. We’ve got a really old signal-tensionkit and then the more modern great-sounding Gretsch kit, and thenthere’s a rack right next to the drum kits that has, like, 15 snaredrums, which we use every single one of. It’s all about the song, thekey it’s in, the overall tonality of instruments around thedrum.”
With Just an American Boy, the album released to accompanyAmos Poe’s documentary of the same name about Earle on tour, the goalwas also capturing a live performance, this time outside of the studio.Poe had used low-quality mics during the shooting of the film, so thealbum was essentially a recapturing of the songs in later concerts. Aswith 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 resortedto digital technology. The band went out with a laptop, a copy ofDigital Performer and some FireWire drives to capture the shows. Thesignal came directly out of the mixing console onto eight tracks inPerformer.
Once back in the studio, Kennedy — in a rare move — tookthe tracks into Pro Tools and crossfaded songs to follow the film’ssequence of songs. “It was the best way to mix songs fromdifferent shows,” he explains. “My biggest job on thatrecord was to make it not sound like Pro Tools.” To achieve this,Kennedy broke out of each individual channel in Pro Tools to an analogconsole while mixing. “I use higher-quality D-to-A convertersthan Pro Tools has,” he explains. “And there’s a lot ofanalog looping in between. Instead of using digital plug-ins, I’m usingreal 1176s and real APIs and Fairchilds. I’m using my normal mix gear,it’s just that the source sound is being generated by ProTools.”
In the end, it came back to the thing that Kennedy and Earle bothprize: the sound of a real, live band. “If you have great guitarsounds, great drum sounds, great vocal sounds, everything sounds reallygreat, and you get the performance on top of that, then you’ve got agreat-sounding record,” Kennedy says. “You have a recordthat’s gonna have appeal, because it’s gonna have an emotional qualityto it because of the performance basis. It’s not thought-out, it’s notprogrammed, it’s not intellectualized; it’s just people playingtogether.”