“Things have been a little nuts recently,” Steve Earle says, calling from his home in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. “We lost our bass player in the last several days. That put an already busy schedule into complete and total chaos.” He’s talking about Kelley Looney, who passed away at his home in Nashville on November 4. Looney was not known to be ill, so his sudden death has been an enormous shock. “He’d been with the band for 31 years—his first record with me was Copperhead Road,” Earle says, sounding as if he still can’t quite believe what’s happened.
“There’s no good way to get through this,” Earle continues. “It’s the closest person to me in the world that I’m not related to by blood. And it’s the longest relationship in my life besides my parents and brothers and sisters. He was in the band since 1988, and I knew him for several years before that. So it’s not easy, but it is what it is. It’s one of those things you just have to walk through.”
In 2014, during a SiriusXM radio show, Earle said that he wasn’t sure he’d continue playing if he ever lost Looney. Now that this terrible loss has actually happened, though, bowing out of performing isn’t actually an option, because Earle is determined to follow through on his upcoming “John Henry’s Friends” benefit concert on December 17 at New York City’s Town Hall. This will be the 5th annual such show that Earle has spearheaded; it raises funds for the Keswell School, a private school in New York City that is dedicated to educating students with autism. It’s a cause that is extremely near and dear to Earle’s heart, as his son (the “John Henry” in the show’s title) attends the school.
It may seem unusual for someone of Earle’s stature to make such an effort to do benefit shows like this—after all, since his 1986 breakthrough album, Guitar Town, Earle has established himself as one of the most revered singer-songwriters in the world. The title track to 1988’s Copperhead Road, in particular, has become one of Earle’s signature songs. He has released 15 critically and commercially-successful studio albums across a wide range of genres, including outlaw country, bluegrass, folk, rock, and blues. His songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris, among many others. He has won three Grammy awards, and been nominated for 16 more. In short, he is nothing less than a musical icon.
But Earle says he has always understood that it’s important for him to use his songwriting to address issues that are important to him (he has written songs expressing his pro-choice and anti-death penalty views, for example), and he is committed to continuing his activism by doing benefit shows whenever he can. “You know, I’ve been pretty lucky,” Earle says. “I do something that I really love doing, and I make a good amount of money doing it. I’ve gotten to see the world. So what have I got to complain about, when it comes right down to it? Of course I need to put something back. So I’ve always found different ways to do that. Recently, it’s become about autism because I live in that community, so that’s what I decided I needed to do.”
Earle says he knows from his own personal experience how crucial it is for children with autism and their families to get the type of education and help that places like the Keswell School can provide. He decided to begin doing this annual benefit show because he knows firsthand how difficult it can be to actually afford this level of assistance. “I make pretty good money, but I just wouldn’t be able to afford all of the other expenses I have and this school without some help from my neighbors in New York,” he says.
The school’s website (keswellschool.org) does not list a tuition amount, although it’s probably safe to assume that it must indeed be quite high, given its Manhattan location, and the fact that it offers a year-round education schedule for students ranging in age from 3- to 21-years-old, with a 1:1 student/teacher ratio. The school’s mission “is to ensure that children on the autism spectrum experience school as joyous and enriching. We respect our students for who they are and for who they will become.” This is done through individualized applied behavior analysis, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and community engagement, among other therapies.
While Earle is happy to support Keswell School itself, he also hopes that his efforts will help raise awareness so that this type of educational opportunity will become more widespread. “My activism, when it comes to autism, is trying to make sure everybody gets what John Henry’s getting, because that’s not even close to true. In New York, there’s more choices about how to deal with autism than there is any place in the world, as far as I know. Other places in the country, kids simply don’t get [those options].”
Since John Henry’s diagnosis, Earle has become something of an expert when it comes to autism, and he is eager to share his knowledge. “One in 89 kids are being born somewhere on what people refer to as ‘the spectrum.’ We don’t know why it’s almost twice as many boys, but the numbers on girls are starting to creep up. I can tell you it’s not vaccinations because I know lots of kids that were not vaccinated that have autism… But it’s something environmental. It may have something to do with older parents, which kind of breaks my heart. They haven’t proven that’s not true, and there’s some evidence to that effect. But I know there aren’t that many older dads at John Henry’s school, either. So we don’t know. There’s so many things in the environment that weren’t there 50 years ago that could be causing this. It always existed, but it used to be rare, and it’s not really rare anymore.”
Even though the situation seems daunting, Earle still sees plenty of reason for hope, however. He uses an analogy to explain his optimism: “Red-tailed hawks were almost completely extinct everywhere east of the Mississippi River. Bald eagles were almost gone. And then we discovered that DDT, which was used widely in agriculture, were causing the eggs to be so fragile that a lot of them didn’t survive to hatch. We stopped using one chemical, and now there’s a red-tailed hawk living in Washington Square Park two blocks from my house. Raptors have come back in a big way because we stopped using one chemical. So what we do can make a difference. Once we figure out what it is [that’s causing autism], we can do something about it.”
Besides a performance by Steve Earle & The Dukes, this year’s “John Henry’s Friends” show will also feature performances by Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter, Amanda Shires, and The Mastersons. As Earle explains, “My band will be the house band for everybody that wants to use it. I think that Jason and Amanda are going to do an acoustic duo set together, that’s the last I heard, but because I’ve been doing memorial service stuff, I haven’t had a chance to talk to them since we lost Kelley.”
Although having so many musicians involved with the show does make it a more complicated event to coordinate, Earle is happy to have so many of his friends appearing alongside him. Also, as he says wryly, “I think you’re overestimating my ability to sell tickets [on my own]! I can’t sell Town Hall at a high enough ticket price to raise the kind of money that we need to raise. I’ve lived in New York for the last 14 years, and I do residencies and benefits around town, so my ticket sales in New York are probably the weakest they are anywhere in the country, in some ways. So, I need the help selling tickets [for this benefit], and it makes it easy with everybody helping out, and it’s giving people a bang for their buck.” Also, he adds, “When I invite somebody to do something like this, it’s implicit that I am available to do something for them, unless they’re raising money for Donald Trump or something.”
As for what Earle and his own band will actually play at the “John Henry’s Friends” show, Earle isn’t quite sure yet, though he expects that they will likely play a few new songs that he wrote for the upcoming play Coal Country. That play, written by Jessica Blank (who also directed it) and Erik Jensen, is set to run at New York City’s prestigious Public Theater from February 18 through March 29. The six songs that Earle wrote for it are, he says, “actually the core of our next [Steve Earle & The Dukes] record, which is going to be called Ghosts of West Virginia.” As well as writing the songs for the play, Earle will also appear in it as an actor: “I’m actually performing in it as a sort of Greek chorus that sings the songs that move the narrative along. It’s not really a musical, it’s more a play with music.”
Coal Country is about the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 men. An investigation found that the disaster was caused by an extensive list of safety violations; in 2015, the CEO of the mine’s parent company, Don Blankenship, was convicted of willfully violating safety standards and was sentenced to a year in prison, and numerous related lawsuits are still ongoing. In order to accurately capture the fallout from the tragedy, Earle and the playwrights traveled to West Virginia to speak with the survivors and victims’ families, then incorporated their words directly into the play’s dialogue and songs.
While Earle has had many notable acting credits (including memorable appearances on the TV shows The Wire and Treme, as well as a number of film roles), he says that this upcoming play is particularly special for him. “I’ve been working on music for theater as long as I’ve been in New York; it’s kind of why I moved here,” he says, “so it’s a very big deal for me to get the work at the Public Theater.”
Beyond his interest in continuing his acting career, Earle also feels strongly about this play’s subject matter because, as he says, “I decided that West Virginia might be the canary in the coal mine, pardon the pun, when it comes to what’s going on with the country, because people voted for Donald Trump there because he said he was going to continue digging for coal there. I understand why people in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump, because they just didn’t see their lives getting any better in the years before that. But the truth is, when it stops being profitable, they’re going to stop mining coal in West Virginia, just like they have in everyplace else.”
Despite being an outspoken liberal, Earle is very careful not to pass judgment on those who voted differently than he did, however. “My politics haven’t changed at all. I’m still a pretty hardcore leftie. But I also understand this country is not just that, and we have to find a way to start communicating with each other, and to stop being so mean to each other, or things are going to get worse. That’s my belief, and I’m hoping [Ghosts of West Virginia] addresses that.” (He plans to actually record that album next month.)
“If you don’t like the way the last election turned out, the fastest way to make sure it happens again is to keep thinking that everyone that voted for Donald Trump is stupid or a racist, because it’s simply not true. Here’s the thing to take into consideration: if you keep pointing fingers at people and demeaning them, then you’re not giving them the room to quietly change their minds and vote another way next time, you’re just backing them into a corner. And most people really aren’t Republicans or Democrats—most people vote for whoever they think is going to make their lives better. Everybody just wants to take care of their kids. So I just wanted to make a record that spoke to people that maybe didn’t vote the way that I did.”
Even though he’s willing to open the lines of communication in this way, though, Earle is adamant that his own political views have not wavered. “Personally, there’s no doubt about how I’m going to vote, it’s going to be for whoever the Democratic nominee is, just like I did last time. But the truth is, I’m not really strictly a Democrat, in the sense that I never joined the Democratic Party until I had to in order to be able to vote for Bernie Sanders [in the primary election], because I really felt like he was saying and doing something to vote for him. I thought he had a real chance. Then, when he didn’t get the nomination, I voted for Hillary Clinton. The point is, I did what I did because my thinking was not about Hillary Clinton being the perfect candidate for me, because she wasn’t, my politics are well to the left of hers. But it’s just a matter of, your vote is an entry into an equation. So not voting because you don’t see the perfect candidate or voting for an alternative candidate, or a protest vote, is a pretty dangerous thing to do right now, because I think we’re in trouble.”
As this phone call wraps up, Earle’s thoughts turn back from the bigger picture to the more pressing matters he’s facing, and although he makes it clear that he’s more than happy to be doing all of these projects, he admits that it’s a lot to handle all at once, let alone during this difficult time as he grieves for Kelley Looney. He says goodbye so he can get back to work auditioning bass players, and adds with a sigh, “When all of this is done, I think I’m going to hire a babysitter and sleep for two days!”
Steve Earle will play a solo acoustic “rehearsal show” at City Vineyard in New York on December 16, then Steve Earle & the Dukes, Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter, Amanda Shires, and The Mastersons will play the “John Henry’s Friends” benefit concert at Town Hall, also in New York, on December 17.