A love letter to little John Henry
What do you do if your son has been diagnosed with autism? If you're Steve Earle, you write a song about him and speak out poignantly and eloquently from the stage about the growing scourge of the behavioural condition.
The song 'Remember Me', from the self-styled Hardcore Troubadour's new album The Low Highway, is a gut-wrenching love letter to little John Henry, the child he had with his wife, the singer/songwriter Allison Moorer.
Moorer – who normally plays a support slot and sings backing vocals when her husband is on tour – won't be on stage in Dublin this time around as four-year-old John Henry is starting school in New York, and his special-needs education takes priority over wowing the crowd at Vicar St tonight.
"We've gotta figure this out," says Steve of the autism that has altered the dynamic of his family life. "This is a worldwide epidemic. And it's obviously something environmental. It's something we're eating, sleeping, breathing . . .
"It's one in 50 kids. Think about it: that's far bigger than influenza; far bigger than Aids, polio . . . bigger than any epidemic we've ever faced. This is about the future of the f***ing human race. We better quit worrying about dumb shit and figure this out."
What does Steve think is causing this epidemic?
"I dunno. It could be pesticides they spray on crops. It could be genetically modified food. It's universal."
How is John Henry now?
"John Henry, I think, is gonna be okay – but he's got resources," says Steve, who is also a published author, DJ, record producer and acclaimed actor, having starred in HBO series The Wire and Treme.
"The school he's in – it's f***ing expensive. He's being treated the only way they know how to treat him, which is with ADD therapy.
"But at least the law says if New York City can't provide for the education that your child needs, then the city has to pay for it. That's not true in the rest of the country, apart from Los Angeles. But even in New York, you have to litigate in order to get them to do what the law says they're supposed to do. And not everyone can afford a lawyer."
The dire straits in which the victims of this great age of austerity find themselves is a recurring theme of the new album. Steve says that he was inspired by the people he saw on his travels around America – just like one of his musical touchstones Woody Guthrie was before him.
"I'm just writing about what I see out the window," says Steve. "Times are tough out there. It's all over the world. Take the TV show I act in – Treme. That story about life in post-Katrina New Orleans is linked to the economic times as well.
"The reason New Orleans has still not been properly rebuilt is the same reason people are still waiting for help cleaning up after the hurricanes on the upper east coast. It's about a lack of funds. You simply can't take over the world and lower taxes at the same time.
"So I realised that what I was seeing out there was closer to what Woody Guthrie saw. So that's where The Low Highway comes from."
Steve recalls a time, though, when his fellow musicians were much quicker to flash the cash.
"I can remember being at the Cambridge Folk Festival surrounded by Irish musicians who were just showing off pieces of property they were getting ready to buy on their f***ing phones . That was a little weird. That was 10 years ago – and the chickens have come home to roost," he says.
Anyone visiting Steve's website will see a post advertising a charity album recorded to help raise funds for Slim Dunlap, alumnus of cult 1980s Minnesota garage band The Replacements, who recently suffered a stroke. So how did Steve get to know Slim?
"The Replacements and I are the same graduating class," he says. "We did a lot of shows together in the 1980s – before Slim was even in the band. I knew Slim before he was a Replacement – before he became a replacement Replacement!" he laughs.
"I spent time in Minneapolis and we shared an agent and did shows together. I recorded a song for the benefit album – I got lucky: I got to record one of their best songs, 'Times Like This'."
Steve Earle & The Dukes play Vicar St tonight. The Low Highway is out now on New West.