Join us once again as we travel back in time to revisit an amazing show featuring musical jack-of-all-trades Jonathan Wilson and the venerable Americana singer-songwriter Steve Earle. Also on the show is Samir Lakhani, founder of Eco Soap Bank, a non-profit that distributes soap to developing nations in order to dramatically improve hygiene for millions of people.
That’s all this week on eTown!
Where do you go after making an album that the Guardian hailed as “a rich, ambitious triumph”, American Songwriter called “a strikingly original, complex and inspired work”, MOJO described as “a record you could lose yourself in for months”, and Billboard as a “most magnificent recording, one that is mandatory listening if you are in search of an immersive album rock experience in the 21st century”? It’s a question Jonathan Wilson asked himself after his “maximalist” album Rare Birds was released in 2018 to glowing reviews. Not only did it earn him Album of the Year awards in Rolling Stone, France and Blitz in Portugal, it brought him his first national television appearances in the US, on Conan and CBS Saturday Morning.
Rare Birds had been the culmination of three solo albums in seven years that the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer released to widespread acclaim. His first, 2011’s Gentle Spirit, a beautiful California dream of an album, is a classic by now and it won him the admiration and friendship of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne. His follow-up, Fanfare, was also well-received with Uncut calling it “a lavish musical epic, the work of a dedicated and stone cold studioholic.” But now Wilson was looking for something completely new.
In 2019 he appeared on the revered nationally-syndicated live music radio show eTown. “It was sort of bluegrass-based,” Wilson says, “and on this particular show I was playing with Steve Earle. Next thing you know, I’m talking with Steve about recording.” Earle advised Wilson that, if he had a bunch of songs written, he ought to take them to Nashville and make the record blind, since Nashville’s crawling with studios and top-notch session players. “And that’s how I got into the idea of going to Nashville and tapping into that sound,” says Wilson. “The sound of my home.”
Wilson was born in a small town in North Carolina. As a child he was raised on a mix of Beatles, 60’s and 70’s rock, country, and bluegrass. His uncle played in bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s band. His father had a rock band, but he would often jam with local friends who could “moonlight on banjo and mandolin and do gospel harmonies that would knock you out. I would sit there and strum along,” says Wilson, “There’s this astute southern rhythm and musicality in western NC…. Then there’s this crazy three finger banjo style that you have to be really good at it because you’re from the place where Earl Scruggs is from. One of my father’s best pals was the music director at the Caroleean gospel church where my grandfather was a preacher and on the side he could pick the shit out of a mandolin. So, I was exposed to something super-authentic that I was soaking up. In hindsight, It doesn’t get more authentic than that.”
Steve Earle is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation. A protege of legendary songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, he quickly became a master storyteller in his own right, with his songs being recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, The Pretenders, and countless others. 1986 saw the release of his record, Guitar Town, which shot to number one on the country charts and is now regarded as a classic of the Americana genre.
Most recently, Earle’s 1988 hit Copperhead Road was made an official state song of Tennessee in 2023. Subsequent releases like The Revolution Starts…Now (2004), Washington Square Serenade (2007), and TOWNES (2009) received consecutive GRAMMY® Awards. His most recent album, Jerry Jeff (2022) consisted of Earle’s versions of songs written by Jerry Jeff Walker, one of his mentors.
Earle has published both a novel I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011) and Dog House Roses, a collection of short stories (Houghton Mifflin 2003). Earle produced albums for other artists such as Joan Baez (Day After Tomorrow)and Lucinda Williams (Car Wheels On A Gravel Road)
As an actor, Earle has appeared in several films and had recurring roles in the HBO series The Wire and Tremé. In 2009, Earle appeared in the off-Broadway play Samara, for which he also wrote a score that The New York Times described as “exquisitely subliminal.” Earle wrote music for and appeared in Coal Country, for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Earle is the host of the weekly show Hard Core Troubadour on Sirius Radio’s Outlaw Country channel.
In 2020, Earle was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. And in 2023, Steve was honored by the Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music.