Steve Earle is a busy man. With a new album and a novel, both titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, he’s in the midst of a tour that stops at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts on Aug. 7 and continues to Europe. When that’s done, he’ll turn his attention to a one-man show he’s writing about Pete Seeger’s 1954 testimony before the Joe McCarthy-chaired House Un-American Activities Committee called Dangerous Songs. He’s completed a second season of Treme, his final one for the David Simon-produced HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans, and he produced Bad Blood, by Americana singer Ana Egge, due for release Aug. 23.
Earle hosts Hardcore Troubadour Radio on Sirius/XM; between sound check and show time, he’ll record the breaks — he chooses all the music — for his weekend show. Pretty impressive for a man who many feared would end up a casualty of the music business after a public bout with drugs and alcohol followed by prison time in the early 1990s. But he’s stayed clean and sober for 18 years, and beginning with 1995’s Train Coming, Earle’s made some of the best music of his career, winning three Grammys along the way, most recently for Townes, his 2009 tribute to mentor Townes Van Zandt.
Steve Earle spoke to the Hippo by telephone during a tour stop in Lexington, Ky.
You began writing for the new album in 2007 (“God Is God” and “I Am A Wanderer” appeared on Joan Baez’s Day After Tomorrow) soon after, your father passed away. How did the rest of the record evolve?
It was just a long period of time; I didn’t even realize what I was writing about most of the time I was writing this record. I was finishing my book and I was writing songs when I wasn’t working on the book. I wrote the two songs for Joan because I was producing her. There were some other projects. T-Bone Burnett was getting ready to make a record with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, and I wrote “Heaven or Hell” for him, for them … it was actually on a disc that went around when they started recording, but for whatever reason it never got finished. I wrote “Lonely are the Free” for a film that I was in that Tim Blake-Nelson wrote and directed called Leaves of Grass that was in the closing credits. Once the book was finished I concentrated on writing songs for the record. I didn’t really know what I was writing about, then T-Bone and I sequenced the record and were listening to it and I just had my first galleys of the book around that time. It just dawned on me that the record was about a lot of the same things that the book’s about — mortality, spirituality as it relates to mortality, and I realized that I was writing about the only thing I could write about. My dad died and that makes you think about that stuff.
One song, “Gulf of Mexico,” sounds like it was written it real time. Did you come up with it in the studio?
No, it was written in New Orleans when I was shooting Treme, right at the end of the season. When the spill happened, a lot of us were down there feeling like we were contributing something positive to New Orleans. Then that happened and it felt like, God, what else can happen to these people? Because you know, nobody knew how it was going to affect livelihoods, but it has affected livelihoods. Nobody really knows what the long-term effects are. At first everyone thought it had gone away; now it hasn’t gone away, it’s still down there. I know the oysters are smaller and more expensive in the second season of Treme than they were the first — an oyster po’boy was around $18.
The record has T-Bone’s stamp all over it. What was it like working with him?
It was great — we’d talked about it and we’ve known each other for a long time, and he’s worked on a lot of friends of mine’s stuff. It was very quick, we made it in a week basically … everything but “This City” was recorded in five days in November in L.A. last year. “This City” was recorded earlier than that because we needed it for the last episode of Treme, so we went into New Orleans and recorded it. It had to be recorded in New Orleans anyway. Allan Toussaint wrote the horn charts and conducted it and put the section together for us.
You produced Joan Baez before your new album and Ana Egge’s Bad Blood after. Did working with T-Bone affect your approach on the later project?
No, I’ve produced records for a long time, though I don’t do it very often, but the way T-Bone and I did things isn’t that different in the sense that we both depend on live takes. We try to get great performances. He’s really, really good, though. I think I produced the Ana Egge record the same way I produced the Joan Baez record.
What’s the current live show like?
The framework is built around the new record; there’s two sets and Allison’s is built into the show, it’s in the latter part of the first set. It’s a six-piece band ... as far as the older songs, I’ve changed them up quite a bit. So it’s a little different night to night from what it was in the beginning. Which I didn’t do too much in the past; I used to just sort of lock in a set and I would tweak it a little the first couple of weeks of touring, then lock it in and they wouldn’t change very much. But this one changes pretty much every night.
One constant is Allison doing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a Sam Cooke tune she sings every day to your son?
Yes, so far there hasn’t been a show where she hasn’t done that one, but I’m not gonna get into predicting what Allison’s gonna do or not gonna do. I don’t get that much to say about that.
You’ve written a novel and you said at one point it wasn’t something you particularly wanted to do, but you did and it’s been very well received. What are your thoughts now that it’s done?
I worked on it off and on for eight years, from the time I finished my last book (the short story collection Doghouse Roses). Most of it was written in the last three. It was one of those things where I started it and was determined to finish. I’m really proud of it. I swore at one point I’d never write another one again … I’m going to write another play first [and] I hope to finish it this winter. When and how it will get produced is another thing.
You’re a topical songwriter with a talent for using characters and stories to express a point of view. Did you have any early role models?
Well, Townes Van Zandt was a very poetic songwriter, and Guy Clark was a great story songwriter. The topical part of it, you know, my role models were probably more people that I didn’t know. I don’t write only topical songs. That’s not even close to most of what I write. I probably write more songs about girls than anything else. My role models for that [the topical songs] were Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, the same people that speak to anyone who writes songs like that — Woody Guthrie.
“John Walker Blues” [from 2002’s Jerusalem] was a hard-hitting song in a time of post-9/11 political correctness. Did you anticipate the backlash it provoked?
Yeah, yeah; my manager said I was overestimating my importance in the world, but I knew people would freak out. I did it with my eyes wide open.
You joined up with Air America and did a music show, and almost made it until the end, you and Rachel Maddow.
Well, Rachel and I made a pact and I broke it before she did. My show was on the weekends, which weren’t even being broadcast any more. They were just on the Internet at the end. They were selling up all the weekend time for infomercials to try and keep the lights on. So I broke that pledge and left about nine months before her. Part of it was I had an offer from Sirius.
You were in Madison, Wis., the other night and showed some solidarity with the people there.
Madison’s always been a town I dug and a pretty politically active town all around. But I’m from Texas, I know what happens when a lunatic governor gets out of control and his influence leads the state. So it probably needs to be stopped. This is where we figure out whether we have a real democracy or not. A democracy has trade unions as a component as much as houses of legislature, the executive branch, the courts. Trade unions are part of that — they are the people’s voice. Rich people get to vote too — it wouldn’t be fair for them to get the vote and get the money; working people need to have something to level that out. That’s what unions are all about, and they’re about to die here. The public unions are the last stand. So what’s happening in Wisconsin is really important.
You’ve been outspoken about the death penalty for many years. Why is that important?
I think it’s because I came from Texas and it developed such a nasty reputation where that’s concerned. It’s one of those things I really seriously believe. For example, I believe a country that didn’t have the death penalty wouldn’t have attacked a country that hadn’t attacked it simply because somebody thought someone had to pay for 9/11. I think that whole concept of retribution and an eye for an eye is really toxic.