When we caught up with Steve Earle, he was hanging out in New Orleans on the set of HBO’s Treme, waiting to shoot a scene for season two. It’s the second time Earle has gotten into character for the show’s co-creator, David Simon. In Simon’s critically acclaimed The Wire, he played a bit part as a former junkie turned 12-step guru. In Treme, he plays an insightful street musician named Harley. In both cases, he has drawn on personal experience. “The Wire really required no acting,” he says wryly. “The role called for a redneck recovering addict. I could do that.”
Earle—a Townes Van Zandt disciple and self-described hillbilly—is a storyteller who’s drawn on personal experience and keen observation to create more than a dozen studio recordings, including three Grammy Award winners, and a collection of short fiction. This month, his newest recording, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, hits the streets. Next month, his debut novel of the same name will be published by Houghton Mifflin.
In the midst of the most prolific period of his career, the down-to-earth but steadfastly irreverent Earle talked about his move to New York, the craft of writing, and the art of politics.
Let’s talk about the new record. What will we hear when we hit play?
In a lot of ways, it’s the most country record I’ve made in a long time. There’s fiddle on it, pedal steel, and some things I haven’t used in a while. It features the same rhythm section that [the record’s producer] T-Bone Burnett worked with on the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant record [Raising Sand]. Dennis Kraus, who also plays in my bluegrass band, is the bass player. The guitar player is Jackson Smith, Patti’s son. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek is playing fiddle. There’s a duet with [wife] Allison [Moorer]. And it also includes “This City,” which we recorded in New Orleans for Treme. T-Bone came to town to record that song, and Allen Toussaint wrote the horn charts. The rest of it was recorded in like five days in November.
What does a producer like T-Bone Burnett bring to the table?
When I produce I’m an arranger. I’m a cheerleader. T-Bone is all of that. Over the years he’s assembled a group of players that I’ve heard him and others compare to the Stax house band. But there’s a difference: The Stax group, the Wrecking Crew, and all these other sections were put together to make hit records. This group of people was put together to make art—and to make it appear effortless. It was hard to get us all together because of schedules and other stuff, but once we got in the studio it was the easiest record I’ve ever made.
Death is reoccurring theme on the new record. What accounts for that emphasis?
What happened in the last three years is that my dad died, and he was really sick before he died. My family, which is very close, still hasn’t recovered from it. It got me thinking about my experiences with mortality and spirituality. I’m a hippie basically. I grew up in a pretty wide-open spiritual atmosphere. And it’s one of the things that saved my life. I think that when I finally decided that I didn’t want to die and I could get clean, I had no problem with the spiritual element of it. I never questioned whether there was a God or not. I’m not a Christian or anything close to one, but I definitely believed there was a power greater than myself. That helped a lot. That was half the battle. My spiritual system is 12-step programs.
So you still go to meetings regularly?
Trust me, when I stop going to meetings you’ll read about me somewhere else.
In May, your new novel, also titled I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, will be in bookstores. It seems you’re really stretching out as a writer.
This is the first full-length novel. I published a collection of short fiction about nine years ago. I’ve written one play. That’s why I moved to New York, because of theater. I’m working on a play now. And while I swore that I’d never write another novel toward the end of this last project, I already have an idea for another one. I just like to write. It was kind of recovery thing. I started writing poetry and prose after I got clean. I also think all the other creative things I do make my home-base craft stronger. I think that’s borne out by the songs on the new record.
As a writer, what is your daily discipline? And where do you get your ideas?
I write what I’m going to write the first few hours of the day before the phone starts ringing. I write with a computer. I don’t use a pencil anymore. I wake up early, like 6 or 6:30, and write most of what I’m going to write by the middle of the day. It’s funny: I don’t understand people who wander around New York City with ear buds in, because you’re just listening to the same shit over and over again, and you’re missing all the music, and you’re missing all the lines, and you’re missing all of that stuff. Writing is not that original. It doesn’t spring full grown from a person. It’s coming from without.
So has relocating to New York affected you creatively?
I moved to New York to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner. I don’t think I could have continued to create anything if I would have continued living in Tennessee. And that’s nothing against Tennessee. It just became more and more of a hostile environment. Not in the sense that people were hostile to me, but I just felt a little stimulus-starved. I was really in danger of becoming an old fart there, just stagnating.
You’re known for your work against the death penalty, and from the stage you can be very outspoken. Does politics fuel your work?
I’m not a political writer. I know people have a hard time believing that. There’s political stuff on my records, but the songs have always been about the way politics affects human beings. But I still write more songs about girls than I do anything. I write and I make things up. And I’m outspokenly political because I think I would be a pussy if I wasn’t. To have realized as much from doing something that I love to do and to not use that position to talk about things that I think are wrong would be irresponsible. If I irritate other people, it doesn’t cost anyone any money but me—and I’m OK with that. I’m just trying to keep from going to hell.
How are you feeling about the current political environment?
I’m pissed off. I’m angry. It’s tough for me. But I try not to be negative, and I’m dedicated to being part of the political process. I’m having a hard time. I’ve always thought that Obama was a little bit too Clintonesque for me to be comfortable with. He wants to make everyone happy so desperately. It does count that he’s black, though. It does count that we elected a black president. We are a better nation for that.
So, a new record, a new book, a play in the works, a new season of Treme—you’re in the midst of one helluva year.
The record comes out in April, and I’m going to do a record store and radio station tour. In May I’m doing a book tour. And then the band starts touring in June. It will be good. If I stay really, really busy, make music, and talk to my sponsor, I should be OK.