Road brings Earle closer to message
Everyday hardships infuse musician’s work
Steve Earle spoke from his Greenwich Village apartment on a rare recent day off from the road.
The raspy-voiced folk-rocker has been on tour for the past six months promoting his 15th and latest studio album, “The Low Highway,” a journey that brings him to the Bing Crosby Theater on Thursday.
By the end of the last leg, said Earle, 58, he was getting massages for sore muscles and carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I felt like a raggedy-ass pitcher at the end of the season,” said the longtime Yankees fan. “When you play guitar and mandolin and banjo for two hours every night, it wears on you after a while.”
As much as the road might take out of Earle, it also provides inspiration. “The Low Highway” was written and recorded during the three-time Grammy winner’s tour for his previous album, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” (which stopped at Spokane’s Fox Theater in June 2011).
“I was just basically writing about what I saw outside the window,” he said, “and what I realized I was seeing was an America much closer to what Woody Guthrie saw than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Times are really tough out there.”
That message hammers home immediately in the opening title track, with its bleak imagery of “empty houses on a dead end street, people lining up for something to eat.” The disillusionment anthem “21st Century Blues” starts out playful – “Where the hell’s my flying car?” – before quickly turning grim: “Lights out in the heart of America/No love in a time of hysteria.”
In “Burnin’ It Down,” a desperate man contemplates torching the Wal-Mart he blames for ruining his hometown.
In small towns, Earle said, “It completely kills Main Street – there’s not a hardware store anymore, none of that stuff can survive. Even local grocery stores can’t survive anymore – Wal-Mart has groceries and they’ve got them way cheaper.
“And on top of that, the jobs that go away from that are replaced by really low-paying jobs that don’t have benefits.”
A more hopeful, resilient tone runs through three tracks that Earle wrote for HBO’s post-Katrina New Orleans series “Treme,” in which he co-starred: “That All You Got?,” “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “After Mardi Gras.”
Even Earle’s powerful take on homelessness, “Invisible,” ends on an uplifting note: “You won’t ever find a purer heart because mine’s invisible.”
“I’m not going to make a piece of work that just bums everybody out by the time they get to the end of it,” he said. “I’m 58 years old and I have a 3-year-old son, so I’m obviously an optimist.”
The album closes with “Remember Me,” a poignant plea to his little boy, John Henry, that recognizes their years together are numbered.
John Henry has autism, which is why Earle’s wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, isn’t part of his touring band like she was two years ago.
“She’s off the road for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Our son has to go to school full time, so somebody needs to stay home and make sure that happens.”
Moorer appeared on “The Low Highway” along with the rest of The Dukes – the latest incarnation of Earle’s touring ensemble under that name, which he calls “the best band I’ve ever had.”
It’s the first studio record featuring his road musicians since 1990’s “The Hard Way.” That also was Earle’s last regular release for almost five years as his heroin and cocaine addictions led to jail time, rehab and recovery.
Earle has played with bassist Kelly Looney and drummer Will Rigby since 1999, while husband-and-wife guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore also perform on their own as The Mastersons (they’ll open Thursday’s show).
“There’s a lot of communication without speech going on out there (on stage) all the time,” he said. “It makes it really good.”
Already the author of a short story collection and a novel, Earle is expanding his communication with words in the form of two more books.
A memoir due early next year will pay tribute to his musical mentor and fellow Texan, Townes Van Zandt; the pair of drug dealers he credits with keeping him alive (“they weren’t doing it because they loved me, they were doing it because I was a commodity, though without them I probably wouldn’t have survived”); and his grandfather, who was a friend of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilkinson and started 12-step programs in northeast Texas.
That will be followed by a historical novel based on the true story of a slave who survived the Alamo.
Earle also has his second big-screen acting role in the Appalachian drama “The World Made Straight,” expected to premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Like in his movie debut, the dark comedy “Leaves of Grass,” he’s a drug dealer – but “a lot smarter drug dealer, and a lot scarier drug dealer.”
It’s not a rut, he insists. Earle played a street musician in “Treme,” and a recovering addict and counselor in another HBO series, “The Wire.”
“I’m two good guys and two bad guys so far in my film career,” he said. “I’ll take that.”