High Road to Redemption

Steve Earle continues to write one of the best second acts in music history

Jul 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm


’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was not only Hank Williams’ hit song and credo but this year it also has become Steve Earle’s tongue-in-cheek mantra as well. With a new record and novel bearing that title, Earle tackles mortality in all his inimitable, hard-chargin’, roguish and reckless ways.

Even I couldn’t escape that song’s shadow recently. I just got back from New Orleans where, in a Quarter bar, I overheard some people talking about how Steve Earle had been killed.

In disbelief, I walked over and said, “What?” The man explained, “No, we’re talking about Earle’s character on HBO’s Treme show, who got shot in the last episode.”

Sorry for the spoiler, but I was relieved — after all, I was supposed to interview the guy.

Luckily, I got the chance soon enough. Speaking with me by phone from his tour bus as he and his band, The Dukes and Duchesses, rumble through the backroads of Alabama, Earle explains, “I signed a piece of paper that I couldn’t tell anybody about the death (on Treme). They didn’t tell me officially until about three weeks before we shot the episode. It was a brutal shooting, but that’s New Orleans.”

As far as his recent subject matter goes, Earle says, “I don’t think the book or the record are about death in the sense of doom and gloom — I mean I’m no shoe-gazer, and never have been. It’s more about death in the sense that mortality is part of life. My dad died three years ago, and that has a lot to do with it. “

Earle plunges ahead in conversation with a Texas-via-Tennessee-via-NYC drawl, having relocated to Greenwich Village years ago with his seventh wife, singer/songwriter Alison Moorer.

In the first of many punchlines, Earle cracks, “They say ‘death and taxes,’ you know — well, the truth of the matter is you can get out of paying taxes, I’ve done that. No, I didn’t pay any taxes because they didn’t have drugs at the IRS, as far as I could tell. At that point it was like everyone who didn’t get me high didn’t get paid.”

Sober now for 18 years, Earle has been on fire since cleaning himself up in rehab and prison. In fact, I would stand on Townes Van Zandt’s coffee table and argue that never before has an artist improved to such a degree after getting sober. The second half of his career has seen him release consistently great records — whether Bluegrass, political or Roots-based — write two books and act in several HBO TV shows along the way, not to mention running his own program on Sirius XM satellite radio appropriately called Hardcore Troubadour. Steve is right — he’s no “shoe-gazer.”

Bob Dylan might be the only musician alive as busy and prolific as the 56-year-old Earle these days.

“I’m a folkie, and that’s exactly how I approach things — as a musicologist,” Earle says. “You know, I live in the neighborhood (Greenwich Village) where my job was invented by Bob Dylan. Dylan raised it to a full-blown art form, and while he did it he took a lot of air out of the room.”

Will Earle ever write a memoir of his ramshackle adventures, a la Dylan’s Chronicles?

“I would write nonfiction before I ever do a memoir,” he answers. “Why would I fuck myself out of all that material I could use in song?”

Good point. Despite his talent, I’m just amazed the impatient Earle can sit still long enough to write an entire book. He concedes, “Songwriting just comes so natural, I’ve done it all my life. It’s harder to write a book for me, because I’m used to finishing something in a couple of days. The book is just more of a commitment. I can write songs on the road, but I had to write the novel in between tours.”

Ironically, the man who can count more ex-wives than some men can count ex-girlfriends, now tours with his Duchess, Alison Moorer, in the band. The Earles have quite the extended musical family these days. His oldest son, Justin Townes Earle, now crisscrosses the other side of the country on his tour bus doing his retro-Folk gigs. His third son, the newborn John Henry (whom he shares with Moorer), might lag behind a few generations, but his music birthright speaks for itself.

Earle’s prodigious legacy is already set — he’s just adding to it now with a smile and a wink, one book, one record and one tour at a time.

STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES (AND DUCHESSES) featuring Allison Moorer perform July 27 at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.