The Treme DVD box set is out now. The four-disc set contains the first season of the series as it’s meant to be seen, and it includes a number of bonus features, some of which are more valuable than others. For fans of the show and New Orleans, the documentary shorts on disc four don’t say much you don’t already know or believe, but it’s easy to see how they’d be of value to those who are entering the show’s world and ours through the set. More valuable are the individual show commentaries. John Goodman is particularly charming in his commentary on an episode when he as a viewer reacts as most viewers do to Michiel Huisman’s Sonny. There is also a valuable feature that identifies pieces of music when they appear in the show, no matter how briefly or how far in the background.
The release of the DVD provided an occasion to talk to Steve Earle, who plays street musician Harley Watt on Treme. His song, “This City,” was up for a Grammy in February, and it appears on the Treme Soundtrack and on his new album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, due out April 26, two days after season two of Treme starts again on HBO.
I appreciate you coming to Best of the Beat this year.
It was a blast, I just happened to be there. I was on hold that week. Treme‘s shot for the most part whenever possible in sequence. But then there’s times for different reasons that it can’t be. With where my scenes were in the production and the way it all planned out, I worked a day. If you only have two days in between, they hold you. So those are the days when I get to stay and eat. (Music Supervisor) Blake [Leyh] was going over there, so I went over with him. And it was literally true that Eric Overmyer had a whole mouthful of king cake when they called their names up (to receive OffBeat‘s Heartbeat Award). He literally had king cake like coming out of his ears when they called their names. The first king cake came out that week because it was the beginning of Carnival.
Are you going to Piety Street to shoot a video for “This City”?
Yeah. We actually filmed the day that we recorded it. So we had that in the can already. Me, T Bone [Burnett] and [Allen] Toussaint went in. Toussaint put the horns together. We recorded it all there back in May the week after Treme wrapped. So that was set in the can. But I went over and recorded community footage to go with it. There is a video of “This City” that’ll probably at some point become a free-standing video, but it’s also a part of a mini-documentary that comes with a deluxe version of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
Oh good. I look forward to it.
It’s cool, and it’ll be vinyl too. That’s probably the real way to hear most of the stuff [Burnett] records. It’s what he likes. There’s always a vinyl version of my records too, the last few records. We used to make records for girls; now we make them for nerds.
How many copies of vinyl do you print?
It’s varied. I think we did 2,000 for Washington Square Serenade. We might have done another thousand at some point. I recall that during the tour people kept asking for it, so we did another thousand and that sold out too. You have to be careful; you don’t want to get stuck with it. One thing about vinyl is for me—I can’t get hurt too bad because I can hang on to it and sell it, and I can usually sign them and give them to charities and stuff. So I would rather overestimate the vinyl amount than underestimate it. It is rather expensive to produce, but vinyl’s back in a big way, especially for real music. It’s a way to sell a few more records now, rather than an archaic format.
I’m one of those people who hung on to vinyl for dear life, but I’m getting ready to finally get a turntable for the first time in a long time because I’m making vinyl records now. I made this record—I’m pretty convinced it does sound better on vinyl than in digital format for a lot of reasons. I heard a mono, vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper at T Bone’s house in his studio when we were mixing the record. It really does sound good.
Do you have in your mind Harley’s back story?
Yeah. It’s funny. Harley Watt—he was originally supposed to be called Harley Watts—and it didn’t clear. There was a Harley Watts in Louisiana somewhere. Harley Watt is a character in a short story that I wrote called “Wheeler County.” It was in Doghouse Roses, my first book. You know I was just coming up with the name.
Basically, [David] Simon created the character. All he knew about him was he was gonna be a Royal Street/Frenchmen Street guy. It used to be those guys were Royal Street guys; Frenchmen Street’s a relatively new innovation. It used to be non-traditional buskers had Royal Street. That was their territory. And they kept the busk out of Jackson Square. So he’s sorta based on, in my mind, some guys I knew. I knew a guy named Frank Schaap that used to play on Royal Street back in the ’80s and ’90s; he’s partially based on him.
The reason I picked his name—basically Simon asked me to name my own character. The Harley Watts in my short story was a musician that never quite made it. He was hitchhiking around the country. He was my me if I’d never gotten a record deal and never stuck in any place long enough to accomplish anything. He was there but for the grace of God. He was a hitchhiker in the story more than anything else, so my back story for Harley on Treme is he’s me without a record deal. He’s from Texas, probably. He’s probably been to Nashville, maybe even been to New York. Probably was in Austin in the ’70s for a while, you know, right when everyone was wearing cocaine and snorting turquoise. And he ended up in New Orleans, and he busks there. And he’s a professional musician. He’s not homeless; he’s a musician that makes most of his living playing on the streets. He does other things too.
Simon’s idea all along was that he was sort of a mentor to the other street musicians, and he was there before the storm and came back afterward or maybe even stayed. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten into that.
Did I hear that you’re writing songs for this season?
Yeah, Lucia [Micarelli] and I have written one so far, yeah.
Is writing for a dramatic context like television new for you?
I wrote “Ellis Unit One” specifically for Dead Man Walking. “Some Dreams” for a movie called The Rookie several years ago. I wrote a song for Pay it Forward which was sort of a painful experience; it convinced me to never write anything based on the script. I wrote something specifically for The Horse Whisperer. I’ve done it, but Treme, I’ve written two pieces so far specifically.
I’m in it a lot more this year than I was last year. I was in three episodes last year. I’ve been in that many already, and several more to go. I’m going to be in probably twice that many. It’s a blast. I love challenges like that. “This City” came about because David Simon wanted me to write a song that Harley would’ve written after the storm. The song that Lucia and I wrote is a song that Annie is working on, sort of under Harley’s tutelage, but he’s not really a co-writer on it. It’s totally Lucia’s melody. We’ve been lucky and able to let this sort of life-imitating-art thing work artistically. It’s really a blast.
Well, it’s just the idea that Harley wrote “This City” in the first season, but one line in it is Annie’s. That happens in the last episode. This song, I cant talk about it too much, but this song in reality, Lucia came up with the melody and I wrote most of the lyrics. In the story, it’s a song that Annie has written. That’s really as much detail as I can go into, because David Simon will have me killed.
Does acting influence your music at all?
This guy that I grew up with ended up in my road crew in the ’80s, and he was talking to the crew on my video. He said, “Hey man, I used to see the credits on movies and wonder what a grip was, until I figured out I am one!” It’s kind of the same thing. I was acting more than I thought I was as a performer. And I avoided that thing for years. I was offered a lot of acting roles back when I was a lot better fuckin’ looking and skinnier in the ’80s.
The only time I ever considered one was, for about 30 seconds in the early ’90s I was managed by Nick Wechsler, who is a film producer. I met with Nick Wechsler for the first time at a Bob Dylan show in New Orleans in ’88. Wechsler produced Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Drugstore Cowboy. He sort of discovered Gus van Sant. He had an option at the time on The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you know, about the Merry Pranksters and Ken Kesey, and he wanted me to play Neal Cassady. I was the right age, and that I considered doing. I even bought the sledgehammer and terrorized my entire band and crew walking around trying to flip it like Cassady did. But it didn’t end up getting made, and I never thought about acting again. But I started doing it because I started wanting to write plays, so I was around it a lot more. Around that time, David Simon, who had used some of my music in The Corner anyway, contacted my manager and said he had this character that he thought I could play in The Wire. It didn’t require any acting because it was a redneck recovering addict. That doesn’t require any acting for me, so it was pretty easy to start there.
Would “Gulf of Mexico” have existed as a song if you weren’t here?
No way. As we were wrapping up the last few episodes, the spill happens.
For someone that grew up going into New Orleans on a fairly regular basis, and then I was there once since the storm about 13 months after the storm and then the next time I was there was to film the first episode I was in the first year of Treme, I was surprised, to tell you the truth. As tough as New Orleans is and as long as it’s been there, politically the way the country has gone, I thought for sure New Orleans would be Disneyland by now. I underestimated her. Since I’ve been there. I realized I was really being stupid because not anyone can live there. Its not for the faint-hearted in any way, shape, or form. You gotta survive summers first. Even before the fucking storm.
Not everybody can live there, and also there’s people that live there because they can’t live anywhere else. It’s a very unique environment. I know of maybe a handful of places like that in the world. New York is that way to a certain extent. You got to really want to live here, you really got to love it to live here. You got to be down for New Orleans to live there on a really cellular level. I considered it more than one time in my life. Before the storm, there was a wave of sort of non-traditional rock musicians that ended up there and a lot of them are friends of mine. I’ve known Peter Holsapple and Susan Cowsill for years, and Susan’s still there. I actually worked on [Daniel] Lanois’ first major post-New Orleans record, which was (Emmylou Harris’) Wrecking Ball, I played on most of that record. It was the first thing I did when I got out of jail.
What blows my mind is it’s smaller than it was, but even before it wasn’t a huge town. And water makes sure that everything’s concentrated within certain boundaries. And it’s not only a music town, but the range of New Orleans music. If anything, in the last decade or two it’s diversified even more than it ever has before. I had somebody ask me once, “Will the people there that are from there welcome musicians from the outside?” I said, “Not necessarily, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t all work.” I think that’s kind of what makes it what it is. You got to really not be paying attention not to learn something there. It couldn’t help but be a big influence on this record I just made. No way “Gulf of Mexico” exists, and no way “Meet Me in the Alleyway” exists. “Meet Me in the Alleyway” is kind of Harley, channeling Harley as much as me.
One of the things I thought was really smart in “Gulf of Mexico” was the observation that for the families of people who work on the oil platforms, the oil companies aren’t the evil empire. For many, that was a really good job to have.
I don’t agree with them on that; I do think the oil companies are evil, but I understand. I grew up in that part of the country. I avoided a $16- or $17-an-hour refinery job like the plague. I was smart enough to know that I might quit playing if I took one of those jobs because I saw it happen to friends of mine. Those jobs exist. I’m not sure there’s many of them, or that as many people have a shot at them as people who live along the Gulf Coast believe. It’s more about hope than the real possibility of a job for everybody, but I do understand why they fight for it. I’m assuming a character in that song, like in “John Walker’s Blues.” It’s not me talking, but it’s me listening.