From busking the streets of the world to playing to huge crowds at international folk festivals Nashville’s Tim Easton has built a dedicated following and a wealth of experience as a country-folk singer-songwriter and guitarist. He is currently in Australia finding his people and being inspired by friends and heroes. In this interview we discuss balancing life, mental health and well being as an artist and the mind-expanding power of travel.
Hello. My name is Les Thomas from Unpaved and today I have the pleasure of talking to Tim Easton. Tim is part way through an Australian tour. Just this last weekend he was a standout act in the Port Fairy Folk Festival  and I got to enjoy multiple performances there, so this interview is a bit of a chance to really see how the tour is going, let people discover – if you are unfamiliar with Tim’s work – what he’s all about and just maybe share a few stories from his many travels around the world. So welcome, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be talking today. How are you doing?
Pretty good, Les. Just hanging out in this B’n’B’ in Sydney and a few planes might fly over, as will happen in this town. If that happens we’ll just deal with it, but thanks for having me on the show.
My pleasure and maybe if we start by getting your memories and reflections of the last weekend in Port Fairy. How did you find it all and what stood out in your mind
So many things about. First of all, geographically it’s just a beautiful place for a festival. Fairly remote, you’ve gotta take a few single country roads to get there; that’s always a good sign. Just a lot of nature nearby; a lot of farms and a beautiful chunk of land down there by the ocean.
I studied a lot about the people that lived there first in that country and the different Indigenous tribes and stuff before. So I did a lot of homework before I got there, so I was aware of some of the heaviness and intensity of that land. And, of course, when I got there it was really nice to encounter some of the descendents of those people and have them do a ceremony to kick it off. And then I think other festivals should send scouts to that festival to see how they run it so smoothly and so efficiently and so comfortably. And the sound was really good. That’s one major deal; the sound was amazing, you know? So a big shoutout to all the people that did the sound for that, and the organisers, and the 500 some volunteers that made it happen. It was just so cool to hang out with them.
I was really lucky that on my first day I was able to play the guitarists’ show, you know? So right off the bat I sang a song to three thousand people and that altered the entire path of the rest of my festival, right? I met people all weekend long who were at that.
Yeah. I never miss that guitar set myself [hosted by Nick Charles], that’s always a beautiful appetiser.
Yeah. It sounds like it’s gonna be kind of macho, like the GUITARISTS, you know? It turns out it was loving and beautiful and not like a showboat thing, but just like incredible musicians
Then I ended up having meals and sharing beverages and hanging out with people all weekend long that were at that. And I got to know a lot of Australians because of that. It was great.
Fantastic. Upon arriving myself, I knew that it has a very strong indigenous presence; you’ve got the Archie Roach Stage down there. I learned the first time it’s actually Peek Whurrong country on Gunditjmara Land, so I think people are getting their heads around these important details more and more. But, yeah, an amazing array of people from around the world, from First Nations, from international artists like yourself; there was a really healthy dose of Scottish music; Eric Bibb was part of the show as well; Billy Bragg.
Really great to meet Billy. I met Billy too. It was nice. And my neighbourhood bros Steve Poltz and Jim Lauderdale were there and it’s always good to cross their path on the planet, you know?
I’ve been with Steve Poltz in some really remote places. He and I played the Nannup Festival a couple of years ago. He and I have been to Alaska a couple of times together. So I’m very fortunate to have really super inspirational songwriters and performers in my life.
And, yeah, Billy Bragg. The first time I saw Billy Bragg was in the ‘80s when he was doing a … the first time I heard of him was when he was playing a demonstration, a benefit to raise awareness for a guy that was in prison. And the guy’s name was NELSON MANDELA!
It was a demonstration through London. At that time it marched to Clapham Commons where Boy George and Sting and Big Audio Dynamite were playing with Billy Bragg, who I’d never heard of until that day. And then, from that day forward there was a permanent vigil in Trafalgar Square until Nelson Mandela was released from prison, which he was within a year or two after that.
I got to talk to him about that. He still feels like a busker to me, the way he’s on stage; the way he does it. And his stage banter or his storytelling is just so good. And he has day of material stuff right there or older stories, or talking to Australians about the referendum and stuff like.
I think he just does it with such a loving angle that you feel like you’re at school a bit. It’s nice.
Well yeah. I think there are similarities between what you and Billy do. You’re both telling stories, sharing these experiences and you have spent many many years, as I understand it, busking in different places throughout Europe and elsewhere. I always find it interesting meeting these incredible artists and finding they’re just as personable off the stage as they are on and it’s just a matter of them having this capacity to communicate that to a huge number of people that most of us aren’t really used to.
Yeah, I would just say he’s so much better at it for so long. His songs are wonderful too. There’s a lot of lyrics; there’s a lot of words; there’s a lot of stories going on. I have to sometimes kind of crane my neck just to understand what he’s talking about because he’s got that thick Cockney accent even when he sings, right?
But just listening … the amount of beautiful music I heard … Indigenous music and then music from all over the world at that Festival really altered my path. I just loved it. I just can’t say enough about it, because there’s worldwide folk festivals and I had never heard of that one until I saw a video of Steve Poltz playing it and getting everyone to hug each other. So I’m super honoured that I got invited to play it and I’m pretty much a busker too. Deep down I’m that same street musician except that today I’m not worried about a taxi cab running over my guitar case or something [laughs] or some little street urchin kids in Dublin stealing my money or something, which did happen once. That was years ago in Ireland. I’ve got stories to tell now. It’s very simple and I don’t have to worry about it much. I just get up on stage and get going and it’s part of my life now, so I feel like it’s effortless for the most part. But I try to introduce new songs into it and I’m working on them here. I’ve got a stack of new material. I’m about to go to Canada to make a new record.
In terms of spending time at a festival like Port Fairy, obviously it sounds like you got a huge hit of inspiration; it’s one of those fill-your-cup kind of things. How do you balance concentrating on your own stuff and being exposed to these new ideas, new sounds, everything that comes with all of these other huge artists or impactful artists?
Well, you need time to slow down. That’s all there is to it. I mean a festival can be overwhelming because there’s so many great things happening and I love connecting with those big audiences, but my favourite set at the festival was at that bookstore in town. I just love going in and looking every single person in the eye and sharing a joke with them. But if you see so many overwhelming things you need time to process it, right? That’s the one challenge.
And then I get up here to Sydney. I saw Billy Bragg and then I was on an aeroplane five hours later on Monday and I got to Sydney. And last night I went to the Sydney Opera House, which is overwhelming, to see the Kronos Quartet, right? And my mind is now quadruply blown. I don’t even know what to say. I’ve been writing about them and I need some quiet time to process all this stuff in order to keep creating. I walk a lot and I write and that’s what I do to try to balance it, because you do need some time to recuperate on the road. I do today when I’m trying to create as well. Some people can’t write on the road. Some people are just getting by. “Just give me some coffee, let me relax, then let’s do the show.” Some days it’s just like that, but I’ve had a couple of days to just walk the streets and go to all the bookstores here. I went to a lot of bookstores in Melbourne as well. I think I answered your question. [Laughs]
It’s part of the nature performing highs and lows. Townes Van Zandt wrote a song about that, didn’t he? Highs and Lows and In Between. [Laughs]
Yeah. You see, I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs today. That was part of my story in the past. So I have a lot more hours in the day now when I’m ready to roll. It’s just part of my life story and I figured I say it out loud because some people are astonished with my output or how much work I’m doing, and when do I ever relax and go on vacation? And to that I say my whole life is like a working vacation, you know? And a big shout out to Areatha Bryant of Mother Hen Touring who has enabled me to come down to Australia and work. And make something of my folk life down here because there’s a huge audience for it, you know? In my mind sometimes I still think I’m like the young rocker, got that rock n roll mentality and I’m really excited to join with the band this week and play a bit, but really what I am is a folkie, a troubadour folkie musician
I kind of commit myself to getting up in the morning and writing whatever it is, just getting started and basically getting the words down. Whether it’s a thing about the Kronos Quartet or hanging out with Billy Bragg again, I try to write about how I feel instead of just bullet points of what I’ve done.
As part of the preparation for this interview I listened to your podcast with Otis Gibbs and you were sharing your story about opening for Townes Van Zandt and it sounds like a very tragic gig.
I’m sorry to say that’s true, yeah.
… Of his life and the role that alcohol and other drugs played in really taking away his health. I picked up during your sets that you dropped in references to Heaps Normal, alcohol free beer.
[Laughs] I’m impressed with it, man. I’m impressed with it.
Sometimes with eating, the culinary culture involves some salt and pepper fried squid or whatever and the flavours of beer and stuff and food like in Spain with tapas and stuff like that, it is part of the culture. And certainly drinking is a strong part of the Irish and Australian cultures. There’s no denying that, and the American culture really. With music and art, it just goes with the territory, so I ran into a little trouble back in the day, and rather than take it to the tragic conclusion of some of my heroes, I decided to ask for help and change it up a little bit.
Townes is one of those characters, he wrote such beautiful material early on. And also he had some tragic things happen to him early on. I don’t know if anybody knows this out there, but he did go through electroshock therapy as a very young man. So he was always different, or tragically unique.
I believe he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Yeah. And back then they probably didn’t have a way of dealing with it. And, of course, alcohol and heroin is going to help “solve that problem”, you know what I mean? Until it doesn’t solve it any more. That’s really what happens with those.
I’ve seen Townes put on a reasonable show and then I’ve seen him put on some kind of trainwreck shows. And that night that I opened up for him, I feel really fortunate to have been able to meet one of my heroes, but as they say about meeting your heroes, sometimes it goes the wrong way. We got drunk is really what happened. That was years ago, right? I just used to think of it as a beautiful romantic night of my youth and now I see it more for the tragedy that it kind of was. He was dead a year later and that didn’t have to happen. He had children, you know? His daughter Katie Bell was three years-old when he passed and Justin Townes Earle’s daughter was three when he passed. And he’s another absolute genius of songwriting and picking. And it’s just a tragedy that doesn’t have to happen. Or maybe it does. It depends what sort of existential point you want to make with it. Perhaps there’s no other choice for it to happen.
Trying to find a benefit of it, trying to find a silver lining in it can prevent someone else from having to go there. But over and over, as we all know, we all have friends and family that have chosen, or couldn’t help make a choice anymore. They just went down.
Sure. I do see changes here and there. You’re one example I think of a broader change that we can observe. I remember listening to James McMurtry’s live album and him saying if you’re a songwriter, basically you’re a beer salesman. Get used to that, get over it, right?
Yeah, T-shirt salesmen too.
This is what fuels the economy and so on. Whether it’s Australia or, I don’t know about other places around the world, people are waking up a bit and backing off drinking so much …
Or it’s more acceptable to ask for help and say “Hey, there’s something wrong.” Mental health is really what we’re talking about here.
You’ve got substances being used to self-medicate. Often depression. Alcohol is a depressant in and of itself. So many artists tend towards the depressive side, so it’s a downward spiral.
Yeah. When you’re super young it’s a great solution to your feelings, you know? When you’re in your 20s it’s the best and you might not have a problem whatsoever in your life. But you might have grown up with some issues in your life and then alcohol tends to help solve those problems, until it doesn’t solve them and then now you can get stuck with this kind of monkey on your back. It’s so common today and I’m just grateful that people talk about it now for what it really is. It’s just like health issues. Where I come from in the state of Tennessee we have some serious mental health challenges there. We rank very low in the States in trying to deal with that. We rank very low in voter turnout. We rank very low in education. One in every four kids in Tennessee is living in poverty. And so we wonder why suddenly we have a governor that’s signing a bill that’s preventing drag queen lunch/brunch to happen.
That’s the greatest threat to society. [Laughs]
Yeah, and then there’s the gun thing and you have to stand in admiration for Australians of all stripes, left wing, right wing, that got together and decided that we were going to do something about the guns at one point, and New Zealand as well. For me it’s an educational issue too. It’s like, education, mental health. If you could dump more money into that than nuclear submarines. I suppose there’s a really big issue that I brought up with China and Russia and all that stuff, but it’s just one world, one people, one love. It’s just hard to say that without sounding like some kind of whatever you want to call me. But the fact is, you try to help the thing at home, right? You try to be at home. And, by the way, that one world thing, that was the thing that Toni Morrison said and the Kronos Quartet had it playing when they played this piece of music. They had her saying that over and over again. I’m not sure of the author of that music, but last night I was just blown away by that whole event. You try to focus on your own neighbourhood. I try to raise awareness about the homeless in East Nashville. I try to support this small organisation called SafPaw.org and every year we record a Bob Dylan song for my friend Laurie Green and her organisation to help our local homeless people. If you go online, last year Steve Poltz took the lead on the song, it’s called “Forever Young”. He actually closed his set at Port Fairy with “Forever Young” and got everybody to sing.
I’m just trying to do something for my neighbourhood, because that’s all you can do, is the local stuff. We try to, anyways.
It sounds to me basically, Tim, given your experience in terms of working, living and travelling abroad, you have a lot of insight that maybe those who’ve stayed at home do not. But you’re basically capable of thinking globally, acting locally.
Yeah, in a nutshell when I get out here and I hit the streets of different countries, I am so the traveller. I love it. My daughter right not is in Japan. She’s 12 years old; she’s with her school in Japan. She’s on a bullet train right now as we speak and she just texted me saying “This train is a little too fast” and I’m like “Well, they don’t call it the Turtle Train.”
The travelling thing, I got into it a little bit with some Tennesseans about it because they get a little defensive when I say this is landlocked Tennessee, really far from the ocean and they burned every book. The pioneers burned every book but the Bible to get there, you know? I know that’s a smartass way of saying it, but all I’m trying to say is that travel really does expand your mind. I mean to see the Third World countries of the Dominican Republic when I was 16, then parts of Mexico, and then parts of my own country, and the barrios of Santo Domingo and also Bolivia. I’ve been there too. To actually be in someone’s house that has dirt floors will alter your perspective and make you very grateful for what you have. And I do wish that more people, specifically Tennesseans or Americans could really see what’s out there just so we could maybe get along a little bit more with things like guns and drag queens, and what’s really dangerous there.
But that’s me and my humble opinion [laughs], or not so humble. I can’t tell anymore. I’m just trying to live my life and live by example and not come across as too finger pointy about it. It’s tough though when you travel a lot.
Find out about current shows and releases at www.timeaston.com