Every once in a while an event comes along that, because of its elements matching the local with the epic, becomes priceless. Consider musician/actor/Woodstocker Steve Earle’s Saturday, December 7 fireside concert in the Barbara Fite Room at Opus 40 in Saugerties – a benefit for the region’s monumental sculpture park – as such an occasion.
Born in Virginia and raised in Texas, Earle is considered one of our great songwriters and performers. He started off country, in that Austin-centered Townes Van Zandt style, and moved to Nashville as a young man, making an almost-instant mark crafting songs and earning a reputation as a bit of a wildman (he has been married seven times, the last sticking for years now as he has spread his wings as a playwright, a novelist and a noted short story writer). Think in terms of the stature afforded a Leonard Cohen or Van Zandt, with three Grammies under his belt and a side career as an actor whose presence in The Wire and Treme have made him a wise ex-junkie big brother for all looking for a real voice to aid one through the craziness of the modern world.
“I was born on this mountain a long time ago/Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal/When you rose in the mornin’ before it was light/To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night,” goes one of his more haunting songs from a career that has seen him take on our foreign wars, the way we treat our poor, the death penalty and even Condoleeza Rice. “I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home/She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe/Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone/But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home.”
It’s easy to feel the eternal pull of Earle’s craft, his soul reaching out through his words and music, his guitar and voice, in such a way as to understand immediately how it is that his work has been picked up for covers by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Percy Sledge, the Pretenders and his later hometown friend Levon Helm – as well as how deeply he and wife and fellow musician Alison Moorer feel about the place that they’ve chosen to inhabit and raise their kid, now age 3.
How perfect that Earle has become close to Opus 40, the lifetime project of Bard professor Harvey Fite that has become a local treasure – albeit one hard to maintain and bring back to full glory after the ravages of recent years’ storms. Both the place (and Fite and his inheritors) share a sense of earned lyricism about them that matches the cragged glories of the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
“I was young on this mountain but now I am old/And I knew every holler, every cool swimmin’ hole/‘Til one night I lay down and woke up to find/That my childhood was over and I went down in the mine,” his great “The Mountain” continues. “There’s a hole in this mountain and it’s dark and it’s deep/And God only knows all the secrets it keeps/There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel/There’re ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed.”
Levon knew that audiences would pay for home concerts. All of us wish that we could have ponied up to see Dylan when he was around, or Van the Man or Jimi or the Band – especially in a place as special as Opus 40’s woodsy grand room, with its fireplace and wall of tools and comfortable lived-in feel. A special few can have dinner there with Stephen Fain Earle and his brood, opening act (and banjo virtuoso) George Stavis and Fite’s remaining family and friends: a grand lot, all of them, full of stories and warmth and good cheer. That’s cheap for priceless, as this event surely is.
Steve Earle concert, Saturday, December 7, 7 p.m., $150/$250, Opus 40, 50 Fite Road, Saugerties; (845) 246-3400, www.opus40.org/events-at-opus40.