By Michelle Trauring
Steve Earle considers himself to be a mostly open book, especially when GE Smith is the one asking the questions.
Through their 30-year friendship, the two iconic musicians have seen it all — from countless back stages and hotel rooms to guitar shops where they had long and impactful conversations during the ups and downs of their own careers, and their individual journeys toward sobriety.
Coming out on the other side, their lives today are barely recognizable from the days they first met — in a good way, they both agree — welcoming fatherhood with open arms and the evolution of their careers.
For Smith, part of that evolution has included his “Portraits” concert series —evenings of conversation and music between the longtime “Saturday Night Live” music director and his various musical guests. After hosting several “Portraits” concerts throughout the summer at Guild Hall in East Hampton, for Earle to finish off the 2019 lineup is only fitting, Smith said, in anticipation of their show on Saturday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“I think it’s really appropriate that Steve is the last show because he’s such a character. He’s such a good songwriter, and he’s a pure product of America, I would say,” explained Smith, who lives in Amagansett. “We’ll be playing songs, and we’ll be talking about stuff — stuff that the songs might suggest, or anything else that comes up.”
Their history dates back to the late 1980s, when Smith was the lead guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band and Earle was his opener — sets that Smith said he’d always watch before he went on.
“I was really impressed with Steve’s songwriting and his ability as a performer,” Smith said. “He’s a great performer, and he’s got a real earthy, raw sense of humor, which I really appreciate. He didn’t grow up in a big city, and neither did I, so I get that style of humor. He’s kind of self-deprecating. He doesn’t mind saying something about himself that maybe a normal person wouldn’t want to talk about. But Steve will say anything, and I like that about him.”
Self-admitted “guitar nerds,” the friends kept in contact over the years, but less so during the 1990s. The decade saw Earle serve 60 days of jail time on charges of cocaine and weapons possession, followed by an outpatient drug treatment program at the Cedarwood Center in Hendersonville, Tennessee. In 2005, Earle moved from Nashville to New York, where he reconnected with Smith, and by then, Earle had 10 years of sobriety.
“We went through those things separately,” Earle said during a recent telephone interview. “We met up again in New York City and both of us were doing way better. We had other interests in common besides guitars when we first met and we started seeing a lot of each other again.”
Earle has used his experience with addiction in his songwriting, as well as his reactions to current events and raising his 9-year-old son, John Henry, who is nonverbal and was diagnosed with autism before age 2.
“But he communicates, trust me,” Earle said. “He’s mad at me right now. Double betrayal: flu shot yesterday, dentist today.”
The rock, country and folk singer-songwriter introduced John Henry to the drums as a form of therapy — “It’s one of his favorite things. He got his first kit from Levon Helm; there’s only about three or four kids that can say that,” he said — and plays annual benefits for autism charities every fall, when he’s off the road with his band.
“The solo show is just an ongoing, evolving, living, breathing thing,” he said. “Solo shows are way harder than band shows, even, because it just takes more physical energy of mine — the way I do it, anyway. It’s just the way it is.
“My job is, like, I walk into a room and everybody is looking at me, and I have to hold down the room until I leave, and it’s just me,” he added. “And, also, they’re all breathing at me, so I always get a flu shot. I got my flu shot yesterday, too.”
Earle’s earliest musical influences came by way of his father and his uncle, who both played piano, and his mother’s younger brother who is just five years his senior and introduced him to the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and, of course, Bob Dylan.
“My first Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Bob Wills all came from my dad’s brother, who was the best nine-fingered piano player in northeast Texas,” he said. “I was lucky; I was exposed to all kinds of great music. South Texas is kind of a musical hotspot. There’s a lot of music there and there aren’t a lot of borders between music, at least among musicians when it gets right down to it, down there.”
He has carried that mentality through into his own music and sound, and his relationships in the industry — including his friendship with Smith. As for what they’ll discuss during the “Portraits” concert, that’s for Smith to decide.
“That’s both above and below my pay grade on this gig,” Earle said. “I think it’s his gig and he gets to ask whatever he wants. It doesn’t mean I’ll answer, but I usually am pretty forthcoming.”
As fellow musicians, there is a camaraderie already established between them, Smith said, and, hopefully, a bit of built-in trust.
“He knows that I spent those years on the road and the thousands of hotels and the bad meals and the staying up for a day because you had to drive between shows 1,000 miles,” Smith said. “He knows that I know that. We’ve done that, for years and years and years.”
With that knowledge comes a certain ease in their conversation, as it has with Smith and his previous guests, who have ranged from Ethan Hawke and the Avett Brothers to Carter Burwell and Dawes.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing these shows, because that’s what I love to do. I love to talk to musicians and I love to back up great singers, great songwriters, and that’s what I’ve gotten to do in these shows,” Smith said. “So where does Steve’s show rank? This is right up there. I really admire Steve. He’s stuck to it.
“I think no matter what kind of job you have, you gotta stick to it,” he continued. “You gotta be willing to not just put in the time doing the work, but you have to constantly reinvent yourself and reinvent your music, and Steve’s real good at that. So I’m looking forward to it. We’re gonna have a good time.”
“Portraits,” featuring Steve Earle and host GE Smith, will be held on Saturday, October 26, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $71 to $91. For more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.or