Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams on Art and Empathy

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From a studio in Nashville, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle talk about protest songs, how compassion feeds creativity, and why artists should never read the comments.

 

The musicians Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams—longtime friends and twin titans of so-called alternative-country, though neither is especially keen on genre distinctions, especially that one—have been grounded by the coronavirus pandemic. For Earle, who is sixty-five, and Williams, who is sixty-seven, sitting still is anathema; both have been recording and touring since the late nineteen-seventies. They’re both waiting out this strange season in Nashville, and considering, among other things, what the politics of this moment mean for the arts.

Earle’s most recent record, “Ghosts of West Virginia,” centers on the Upper Big Branch coal-mine explosion, in 2010, one of the grisliest and most egregious mining disasters in American history. Twenty-nine miners were killed in the explosion, which created a blast that was felt for miles around the mine. Over the past four years, Earle collaborated with the playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank to develop a companion theatre piece, “Coal Country,” based on first-person accounts of the disaster. The show opened at the Public Theatre, in New York, on March 3rd, and, of course, closed shortly thereafter, as the city shut down to staunch the spread of the coronavirus. Williams’s new album, “Good Souls Better Angels,” is dark, bluesy, and urgent; it was released in late April, and includes a scathing musical indictment of Donald Trump, a song pointedly titled “Man Without a Soul.”

One afternoon in early July, Earle and Williams met up in a Nashville studio, and I joined them remotely. We talked about songwriting, the legacy of Bob Dylan, the cruelty of online comments, protest music, poetry, compassion, and their decades-long friendship. Some of their music is explicitly political—but even the songs that do not directly address a sitting President or narrate an industrial disaster have things to say about the state of the world; both Earle and Williams are world renowned for their storytelling and the ways in which they structure and refine tender narratives about people getting by, or failing to.

During our time together, they both played a few new songs—a tiny concert conducted via Zoom. You can see our conversation, and these performances, in the video above. They finished with a collaborative cover of “Deportee,” which features lyrics by Woody Guthrie. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking song about what happens when we stop regarding one another as human. “Making art in the United States of America is a political statement in and of itself,” Earle said. “This is the most hostile environment to art that’s ever existed in the world.” Yet Earle and Williams have kept going. That’s a lesson for all of us.

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