IN TUNE : Onetime junkie Steve Earle said he wasn’t there, physically or emotionally, for either of his first two sons… but this time it’s going to be different: With newborn John Henry to care for, he and wife Allison Moorer are performing a string of shows at City Winery in their adoptive Manhattan — all with special guests. Last night’s: Rosanne Cash.
So after the ladies had gone, along with several patrons who probably had sitters, Earle pulled out “Little Rock and Roller,” a song he’d written when Justin Townes was three, dedicated once to Ian and now sung for John Henry Earle:
Hey little guy, I can’t believe you answered the phone
I guess I didn’t know you could do that, God help me,
Have I been gone that long?
No little guy, your daddy won’t be home for a while
It’s gonna be another couple weeks
And another couple thousand miles
So got to sleep little rock ‘n’ roller
Your daddy’s up there knockin’ ’em dead tonight
One of these days when you’re a little older
You can ride the big bus — and everything will be all right
Long-since given up for dead more than once, Steve Earle is a rock-and-roll version of the character he played on “The Wire”: a reformed addict dedicated to fighting social injustice — in particular, the death penalty — championing the underdog, stirring his fans and, now, tending to his family.
Earlier Thursday, Earle learned he’d been nominated for an Emmy for a song he wrote for “Treme,” a TV drama created by David Simon (“Homicide,” “The Corner,” “The Wire”) about people left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in a part of the city known for its bevy of musical talent. He said he doesn’t expect to win, making him “the Susan Lucci of these things.”
He can afford to clown around. Earle’s hope has been unwavering since he cleaned himself up a long time ago. But it seems stronger than ever now.
Instead of closing with “Christmas in Washington,” Earle opened with it, standing away from the microphone so the few hundred devotees crammed into what may be the city’s best club for acoustic music could sing along.
He later smiled as he introduced “Jerusalem,” a song about an end to war that he said he’ll sing “until the day I die or when things finally change.”
Moorer contributed songs from her new album, “Crows,” released in February, a collection of mournful tunes that found her spending more time at the piano than on guitar (“I got puke on my back?“ she asked those seated behind her).
After a lovely ode to familial love (“Easy in the Summertime“), Moorer ended her turn with a tour-de-force she called her favorite from the new album, the title song — which eased from a hush to a sharp arpeggio, then back down again, in a melodic line that, echoing the lyrics, seemed unsure where it should go:
So why won’t he just give me the message?
What’s the worst news he could bring?
And I make a mess when I’m guessing
Earle returned for a quick early trip through his songbook, resurrecting “Devil’s Right Hand,” “Someday,” “My Old Friend the Blues,“ before unabashedly serenading his wife with “Sparkle & Shine.”
They played a duet, “Days Are Never Long Enough,” and then momma dashed off to tend to junior.
Incomparable, immensely talented, Rosanne Cash commanded her time onstage. “I suck at bar chords,” she told the crowd, then chimed beautifully through a pair of songs from “Black Cadillac,” including the brilliantly bittersweet “The Unseen.” She kept the joint’s rattle and hum to a hush with “Girl From the North Country,” recorded by her father and Bob Dylan in 1969.
Earle joined her for a couple of tunes, including Cash’s first hit, “No Memories Hangin’ Round.”
For a slideshow from the performance, click: Steve Earle/CVP/Flickr
Cash was gone too quickly, though, yet Earle kept his charges energized with versions of “Goodbye, Guitar Town,” which tells the story of his moving to New York with Moorer several years ago, “Fort Worth Blues,” and “You Know the Rest,” as well as the elegiac song he wrote for his idol, Townes Van Zandt, “(Can’t Remember If We Said) Goodbye.”Rosanne Cash
Granting requests, he bounced on mandolin through “Gallway Girl,” took pot shots at Arizona before strumming hard through an impassioned version of “City of Immigrants,” and eventually closed with — what else? — “Copperhead Road.”
Babies change lives, and Earle proudly announced that the Dukes are reuniting for a “Hardly Bluegrass” tour after he produces a new album in September. John Henry should be old enough to hit the road with his folks by then, he said.
Fitting then, that next time at City Winery he and Moorer will be joined by Justin Townes Earle (July 15). Then comes the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 29) and a special guest on Aug. 5, the final night of the run (our only clue is that “he” comes from New York City).
It’s a joy to witness a man so comfortable in his skin and at peace with the world, especially a former Nashville rebel, social critic, heroin addict and mainstream reject who somehow transcended a lifetime of conflict to produce a body of work that rivals anyone’s — Dylan and Neil Young included.
Earle has since continued doing things his way, letting the audience come to him. He acts, he writes poetry, he sings with a commitment to compassion that cannot be faked. Most importantly, he lives a dream that could have easily vanished had he blinked when facing the abyss.
Good to have you around, Steve. Glad to know you’ve found what’s over that rainbow.
It gives the rest of us hope.
For a full list of shows and events, as well as the opportunity to buy tickets without getting fleeced, go to
and select your own seat(s). The service is outstanding, the street parking is abundant, and afterward you can either zip right into the Holland Tunnel, head toward one of the East River crossings, or turn around for a buzz up Sixth Avenue. Hit the lights at just the right time, with minimal traffic, and you’ll make it past Radio City. Oh, and it truly is a winery. A great one, too.
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For a slideshow from the performance, click: