Published Apr 23, 2013Steve Earle's latest album, The Low Highway, finds him back in familiar territory, exploring the harsh realities of contemporary society while paying tribute to the diverse sounds that have defined American music over the past century. It's also his first album in over two decades to give co-credit to his touring band the Dukes (now augmented by the Duchesses, including Earle's wife Allison Moorer). During our conversation at Toronto's Drake Hotel, the always-candid Earle opened up about the origins of several songs on The Low Highway, along with his recent experience acting on the HBO series Treme, his relationship with his son — singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle — and the progress of his forthcoming memoir.
Would you say this new album presents your view of America at this moment?
Yeah, and the world. These hard times are not just in my country. They hit my country a little harder and quicker. In Ireland they hit almost as hard, actually harder in some ways because it's smaller and couldn't absorb the hit. It's all because sub-prime mortgages are legal there, and they're not in Canada and most of Europe. So that took things down real fast. But what happened impacted the whole world. Going into this record, I knew I wanted to make [it] with the band because they were sounding really good on the last tour, and I had a bunch of songs I'd written for Treme. Now, the story of Treme is the story of New Orleans after Katrina, and the story of New Orleans after Katrina is linked directly to these economic times we're living through. The reason New Orleans is still not rebuilt is money. The good side of that is there were people planning to develop it into some kind of Disneyland in a place where poor people could never afford to live, which includes most musicians, and that would have really fucked things up as far as the New Orleans that we know. We dodged that bullet because there simply weren't the funds to do that. I'd like to say it was because we all got together and had a big benefit and sang "Kumbaya" and shit, but that's not what happened. It's tough out there, and it suddenly dawned on me that all of this was much closer to what Woody Guthrie saw. From the time Bob Dylan invented this job, we've all emulated Woody Guthrie and music that has its roots in the '30s. My wife told me something that [Nashville singer/songwriter] Lonesome Bob said that the kind of music we play is sort of like being a Civil War re-enactor. When the Band did it, it was sort of like being a Civil War re-enactor. It all has its roots in the '30s, and even now with younger people doing this job, it's a fashion statement to dress like people from the '30s. But the fact of the matter is, none of us including Bob [Dylan] ever saw that first-hand, ever saw times that hard. I looked out the window one day and it dawned on me that I was, that things are really that tough out there.
You mentioned Treme, and your character Harley became prominent during the second season. Were you living in New Orleans for an extended period then?
I did spend a lot of time there for about two years, but it was kind of in-and-out. I'd fly down and stay anywhere from three days to two weeks. It takes about 11 days to shoot an hour-long episode of television, at least the way that David Simon does it. You also can't work on Sundays in New Orleans; they have a Catholic tradition even though nobody goes to church. During the first season, Allison was pregnant, so I was keeping track of where every private plane flying out of Louisiana and Texas was in case she went into labour. All the drivers on the set were ready to get me out of there, and they also knew after every day of shooting wrapped not to take me back to the hotel without stopping at Gene's to get a po-boy. I gained a lot of weight and I'm finally starting to lose it. I miss the job; it was a lot of fun.
One of the best things about Treme is how accurately it seems to reflect the lives of working musicians. Did you feel that as you were working on the show?
Yeah. My character was me if I'd never gotten a record deal, as far as I was concerned. David [Simon] didn't really see it that way, he saw Harley as more flawed than that. But we find out in the end that Harley built this myth around himself that he was from Texas when he was really from Washington. But Bob Dylan did that too, so that doesn't diminish Harley's credibility in my eyes at all. It's what writers do.
It was certainly a shock when the end did come for Harley.
It was designed to be. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody, and they didn't tell me until the last minute. They knew when we started shooting the second season that I was going to die — there'd been a meeting where they put three or four characters' names up on the board and decided that the one that they could make people care about the most, and the fastest, and continue to tell the story without, was me. So I lost, and that was a drag. I could have gone on for another couple of years planning things around Treme, even though it paid way less than my day job. My manager [Danny Goldberg] was probably relieved to see me get shot in the face, to tell you the truth.
Getting back to The Low Highway, a few of the standout tracks for me sound as if you're putting yourself back in the shoes of that kids from small-town Texas. Is that fair to say?
Well, there is that, but when you do what I do at the level that I do it, I play secondary and even tertiary markets. I travel overland most of the time when I'm touring, and most of the time it's overnight. I'll wake up in a different place every day, whether it's in Europe or in North America. We've toured Canada pretty extensively, lots of little theatres and hockey rinks. If I went solo and didn't spend the money on the band, I could probably support myself for the rest of my life going to western Canada with just my guitar every nine months or so. I've been doing this a long time, my career is what it's going to be, my audience is the size it's going to be, and I'm more comfortable with it than I've ever been. I go out after every show to the merch table and talk to people, which is something I just started doing recently, like, last tour.
Maybe to frame my question better, this album seems to have a much different vibe than your last few records that were made after you moved to New York.
Yeah, it does. This record was written on the road, and that's what happens when you're out there.
The title track that opens the album really does set a kind of vagabond tone for the entire record. It made me wonder: is this the guy who wrote "Guitar Town" 25 years later?
No, this is a completely different person. That guy's dead, has been for a long time. But it's the same idea. There've been a lot of my records that opened with the title track. The whole concept of Guitar Town came from seeing Bruce Springsteen on the Born In The U.S.A. tour, and hearing him open the show with that song. I'd been banging around Nashville a long time; I was already 30 years old. I wrote that record to be a record, so I wrote "Guitar Town" first to open it, and as part of this idea that an album and a tour were a connected event. That's the way I've written ever since, which makes me officially a dinosaur since music has kind of gone back to being about individual tracks. I understand that, but it's not what I do. I'll probably go down with the ship when it comes to albums being the medium. The difference between me now and that guy from 25 years ago is, this is much more about you, and them. Guitar Town was about me. Townes [Van Zandt] always wrote about himself. It wasn't out of ego; he was more bewildered by and bummed out about himself than probably anyone I've ever met. He had a hard time understanding what went on in his head, so he just wrote about it constantly. I can be the same way, but I've always tried to look further outward. The first conversation I ever had with Johnny Cash was at a benefit we were both on in Nashville in 1987. He walked across the room and introduced himself, and it's a really weird thing when Johnny Cash introduces himself because he says "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," like we've all heard him say before. Then he started talking about "Little Rock 'N Roller." He connected to that song as a listener because he'd left his kids and gone on the road, but truck drivers come up to me and talk about that song a lot too. You don't have to be a musician to miss your kids when you're on the road. It's about how we're the same, and that's how you get an audience. I'm the opposite of Andy Kaufman, I don't believe for a second that just because it's interesting to me, it'll be interesting to an audience. I care about connecting with an audience, and I work really hard at it.
The subtext of addiction in songs like "Pocket Full Of Rain" and "Invisible" I imagine echoes your own daily struggles. Is it helpful for you to channel that into your writing?
I don't know. "Invisible" is about homeless people in my neighbourhood. It took a long time to write and I don't know why. I started it for I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive and didn't finish it and almost threw it away, but I'm glad I didn't. I think that song knew what the next record was going to be and wanted to be on it. "Pocket Full Of Rain" is a couple of things; musically it's kind of a companion piece to the other Treme songs, that's why they're all together on the record. When I used to drink — when I'd get really drunk — I'd think I could speak Spanish. And when you hang out in New Orleans long enough, you start to think you can play piano. You can't hitchhike with one, so I stopped playing piano when I was 16. There was one in my house, so I'd play [Neil Young's] "Till The Morning Comes" and "Hey Jude" and stuff I heard on records that I could pick out. I probably would have played more keyboards if I hadn't left home so young. There weren't light, portable pianos in those days anyway. So, for some reason I decided I was going to write a song on piano. I was hanging out in Nashville — we still have a house there — and I have a really good Wurlitzer Spinet there, that's been there for years that actually belonged to one of my ex-wives. She never came and got it. It wasn't quite in tune, but almost. It's a really good piano that's been sitting there for years. We were getting ready to make the record, and something else was going on where I had to hang out in Nashville for a week, so I wrote that song there, along with some other songs for the third season of Treme. I did actually go through what the song's about. It was the biggest crisis in my recovery. It's not important why; when people go back out, it's because they stop going to meetings and stop calling their sponsor, which is not something I've ever done. Because I do all the stuff, I didn't pick up, I didn't use. But I wanted to for the first time in the 18 years I've been clean. I don't know how to explain it other than it happened, but it's proof that the program works. I was doing what I was supposed to do, and therefore I didn't pick up. I trust the program more than ever, and it's even more the centre of my life. That song was written sort of at the end of that period when I realized this thing fucking works and I haven't been doing it for nothing.
Was making your last two albums, the Townes Van Zandt tribute and I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, based around the death of your father, a kind of catharsis?
There's been some big changes in my life over the last few years, and losing my dad was a big deal. At the same time, I have a friend who lost her father and she still goes and lays on his grave. I wasn't like that when my dad died, but it had a huge effect on me. When my father died, he'd been really sick for a long time, and I was just glad he wasn't suffering anymore. There were people in my family who didn't see it that way. They just wouldn't give him permission to leave. They kind of thought it was about them, and I had a hard time watching him living the way he was living. I didn't want him gone. The night before he died, I said to Allison, "I don't want my dad to go away." I lived in New York and didn't see him that much, which made it even worse, but he'd been fighting for every breath for a long time. He couldn't really walk or go anywhere for two or three years. He came to New York, but we couldn't really go anywhere or do anything, and he got into trouble on the plane on the way home and went straight to the hospital and he never came to New York again. Every time I saw him after that, he was in the hospital. It was just one of those things…. I think one of the reasons why I love Harry Potter books so much is because they're about death, in the sense that death is a part of life. Kids learn about death from those books in a really healthy way, I think. We teach death in this culture as a thing to be avoided at all costs. I want to stay alive for as long as I can, but watching my dad go through what he did, it was like, note to self: don't fight it so hard. Not for anybody else's convenience, but just for the quality of what life you have left.
Did going through that alter your relationship with your son Justin at all? He's in the public eye now, and dealing with his own addiction issues.
I don't hear from Justin that much, but it's got nothing to do with that, I don't think. He was close to my dad, but you'd have to ask him about that. My relationship with Justin hasn't changed that much since my dad died. I hear from him less frequently than I do [son] Ian. I run into him at festivals that we're both playing. The last time I saw him was at Christmas and that was the first time I had all three boys together in one room. [Earle's child with Allison Moorer is son John Henry]. But he's got his own stuff to do. He's in the process of getting a new record deal since his deal with Bloodshot ended. So the short answer is, I haven't seen him very much.
I want to ask again about the effect that living in New York has had on your work, particularly your political views. Your liberalism seemed more defined on the records you made there.
I actually don't think any of my records are more or less political than the ones before it. No doubt about it, Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now are more overtly political records than the rest of them, but they reflect the times in which they were made. They were both made in Nashville. The first record I made after I got to New York was Washington Square Serenade, then after that was Townes, and the last album I made in L.A. So, New York didn't change my politics. My politics made it impossible for me to live in Tennessee. I just couldn't do it anymore. I was sick of Baptists, and sick of Republicans.
From what I can see, Nashville seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence in coolness though.
I guess, but you gotta remember something about how cool you think Nashville is. Yes, Jack White's there now — somebody told me, "You gotta move back here man, it's so cool now that Jack White's here" — and the Black Keys are there. Jack White's from Detroit, and the Black Keys are from where? Akron? Have you ever been to Detroit or Akron? If you're from Detroit or Akron, Nashville's cool. I lived there 33 years and I don't think it's all that cool anymore. But those guys are doing great stuff. And the place to get vinyl manufactured is Nashville, because Jack White is doing so much of it. There's one really great pressing and mastering facility there, and it's the place to go to, all because Jack is so painstaking when it comes to his vinyl releases, and it's so important to what he does. It was just like any other dying art that became part of this hipster ideal, and now it's the thing. I do vinyl with everything I put out. But I understand the appeal of Nashville; it's way cheaper than living in New York or L.A., but number one, I don't just make records. I write prose, I wrote a play and I want to write more plays, and as a consumer, theatre is really important to me. And major league baseball. That's what I do when I'm at home in New York, I go see plays and I go to baseball games.
Do you have a new novel underway at the moment?
Not a novel, but I've made a deal for two books. I had a novel outlined and was well into researching it, when it was decided that I was going to write a memoir. There were a lot of reasons that mainly had to do with money. My little boy has autism, and the school that he just started in last week, finally, is really expensive, and I don't have that much money. So I had a deal on the table for the novel, and it was a lot of money, in my way of thinking. But I went back to my editor looking for solutions to pay for my son's schooling and asked him how much would a memoir be worth. He told me, and it was way more. So I made a deal for two books and I'm writing the memoir now. I'll deliver it at the end of the year and the novel will come after that.
How are you finding writing about your life in detail like that?
There's days when it's impossible to work on it because I wake up and I just can't face writing about myself. I can't do it. When I was writing my last novel, the character Doc would bug me every once in a while because he was a little bit too much like me, but writing Graciela was so much fun. It was a female character, and that's fascinating for a male writer, or it should be. But the next book is not an autobiography, it's a literary memoir, and that means the bar is really high. I'm not competing with Neil Young and Keith Richards, I'm competing with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. I think a lot is expected since I've written a lot of other stuff. This won't be my first book, and I expect a lot of it. Patti's book [Just Kids] is one of the best books I've ever read, and it may be the best book about New York at that moment in time. The only other book I would put it up against is Bright Lights, Big City, which is a novel. I'm not intimidated by very many people that I meet, and Patti was always one of them. I'm scared shitless of Patti Smith, and I know her pretty well. So, the book's going to be a literary memoir, not about my whole life, and it's going to be called I Can't Remember If We Said Goodbye. It's in three acts, and all of them have to do with mentors. The first part is about Townes and Guy [Clark] and a bunch of other guys you haven't heard of that were teachers in what I do. The second part's about two guys who are first cousins who sort of battled for my soul and my business when I was at absolute rock bottom. They were both drug dealers; they kept me alive, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them, but they didn't do it because they loved me. They did it because I was a commodity. And the third part's about my grandfather who started most of the 12 Step meetings in northeast Texas. I grew up with the 12 Step Serenity Prayer hanging on the wall, and when I decided I didn't want to die, he became a hero to me in treatment, and I realized who those guys sleeping on his couch were. I should be able to get it all done on the road by my deadline in November since I don't have to make any of it up.