Steve Earle shares songwriting wisdom

Alt-country firebrand Steve Earle rarely allows himself breathing room between projects. Recently split from Alison Moorer, his wife of seven years, he’s staying busy, working on: “Samara,” a new Richard Maxwell play he’s scoring for New York’s Soho Rep; an album he’ll record with longtime chum Shawn Colvin produced by Buddy Miller; and a musical version of “Washington Square Serenade,” an album he’s developing for Broadway. He also issued a great new all-blues CD called “Terraplane.”

In addition to everything else, in July, you’ll be teaching your second annual Camp Copperhead songwriting course in Big Indian, N.Y.?

Yeah. It’s a master course in songwriting, over four days, and it’s taught exclusively by me. And I also conduct a poetry workshop, and I teach guitar, for people who just want to work on their guitar playing. But last year, we found a few people who were really great. And you’re going to hear from them – let’s put it that way.

This is a more serious version of classes you’ve taught before, at Fur Peace Ranch and Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, right?

Yes. And it also teaches methodology, where I show them how I go about writing songs – how I used to do it, and how it’s changed over the years. A methodology is important, but you have to develop your own. I used to write in the middle of the night, and then I stopped taking drugs and I started writing in the morning. And now I’ve got a 5-year-old son, so I’m writing in the middle of the night again, after I put him to bed.

You also stress to students that songs don’t necessarily beam down from the universe – they require hard work.

From my experience, I can count on one of Billy Joe Shaver’s hands the number of times that a song was purely inspiration. The vast majority of the time, I get a verse, or a chorus, and that’s it – the rest is work. And you have to learn to do it to be great. But you can learn how the mechanics work, and you can get better at it.

It’s pretty cool that students want to hear the wisdom you have to share.

Well, yes, it is. But I believe that the two biggest mistakes we make in this culture is the way we deal with death and the way we treat our older citizens. It’s all youth culture, and nobody wants to hear anything from anybody who’s been around for awhile. We listen less and less to voices of experience in this culture, and it’s our most fatal mistake.


Steve Earle & The Dukes

Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.

When: 9 p.m. May 1

Tickets: $36

Contact: (415) 885-0750,

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