Earle adds new chapter as stellar songwriter
Singer grapples with mortality in his debut novel, latest CD
It wasn’t part of any master plan that Steve Earle released a CD and his debut novel virtually simultaneously and with the same titles: “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
The novel, named for the last single released by Hank Williams before his death, took eight years of work and features Williams’ ghost as a main character.
There’s no obvious link to the subject matter of his new songs, but when Earle listened to them he realized the idea of mortality ran through both projects.
His father died three years ago at a time when Earle was writing songs for an album he produced for Joan Baez. Two of those songs, “God is God” and “I Am a Wanderer,” Earle also recorded for his own disc.
“It can’t help but seep into everything,” he says. “It’s a big event in everyone’s life. When the generation before you is gone, you’re next.”
Earle and three friends all dropped out of high school at the same time. Two of them are dead. The third has cancer.
And Earle, at 56 and 16 years removed from a heroin addiction that sent him to jail and almost killed him, is the one alive and healthy – with a multifaceted professional life, a happy marriage to singer Allison Moorer and a 1-year-son, John Henry.
His appreciation of that bursts through on “Waitin’ on the Sky,” the opening cut of the new CD, where Earle sings: “Didn’t know I was going to live this long now I’m sittin’ on top of the world.”
Moorer will accompany her husband to his concert Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
Earle is touring with a full electric band, his first time doing that in a few years. He’ll do a lengthy show with acoustic sections largely concentrated on his last few albums, a short set with Moorer and a more expansive electric exploration of his lengthening body of work.
He has written more than songs through the years, and a collection of short stories predated his new book. His agent encouraged him to pursue the idea of a novel taking off from the true story that a doctor had been traveling with Williams when he died on Jan. 1, 1953, and had likely supplied him with drugs.
Not that it was easy. Earle had become a master in a discipline that required writers to boil complex ideas into concise, three- or four-minute stories; here he’d have to stretch.
And his idea of writing during downtime traveling on concert tours proved a bust.
“You can’t stare at a word processor on a moving vehicle,” he says. “You’ll throw up.”
Earle borrowed a friend’s apartment in Spain for a couple of stretches to write.
“It’s just hard work,” he says. “I typed 18 words a minute in high school when I started learning typing and I think I typed 14 when I finished. I play piano better than I type.
“It’s painful. It’s physically grueling. If I didn’t go to the gym every day it would kill me. It was like somebody was beating me between the shoulders with a baseball bat.”
In the novel, Dr. Joseph Alexander Ebersole III – everyone just knows him as “Doc” – has settled into a seedy part of San Antonio. He’d long since lost his license but paid for his drug fixes by providing under-the-table medical services.
His life begins changing when a Mexican girl for whom he’d performed an abortion moves in with him, and Hank’s ghost doesn’t like the competition.
“Hank Williams haunts me, and I think everybody else who does what I do, to a certain extent,” Earle says. “He certainly did Townes (Van Zandt, Earle’s musical hero). Townes died on New Year’s Day, and I’m not sure it’s totally an accident.”
The book has brought forth a wide swath of critical opinion. In the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Jeff Johnson said that “Earle proves an imaginative, insightful author with an innate gift to storytelling.”
But while there’s no question Earle can tell a great story, Kim Curtis of the Associated Press wrote that “he cannot seem to sustain it throughout this short volume of fiction.”
As for the new album, though the songwriting process came across a longer period of time and it took Earle awhile to recognize its theme, he had very definite ideas about how he wanted to make it.
Earle is an experienced producer, both of his work and others, but he decided early on he wanted producer T Bone Burnett at the helm for this one. He wanted to concentrate on songwriting without being distracted by other chores.
In addition to a goodbye swipe at former President George W. Bush (“Little Emperor”), Earle writes about New Orleans from the perspective of the character he portrays in HBO’s “Treme” in “This City.”
He takes on the Gulf oil spill through the narrative device of three generations of men who made a living off the water.
His description of the spill is harrowing: “One night I swear I saw the devil crawlin’ from the hole and he spilled the guts of hell out in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Moorer makes some appearances, and Earle’s “Every Part of Me” is one of his most poignant love songs.
Burnett, who was part of the backing band, put together expert musicians and recorded quickly while the material was fresh, Earle says.
“I think I sang really well on this record,” he says. “There are some people who hate my voice. If your suspension of disbelief extends to the idea that I can sing at all, this is about as well as I’ve sung on a record. A lot of that is T Bone.”