Steve Earle: A Life of Learnin'

Music Features Steve Earle
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There’s something Biblical about Steve Earle these days. The 56-year-old singer-songwriter has been to hell and back, a survivor of several failed marriages, alcoholism and a serious addiction to heroin that almost ended everything. Then, there’s his latest album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, which has songs like “God Is God,” “Heaven or Hell” and “I Am a Wanderer.” The album, not surprisingly, deals with big things like death and God. And, there’s the fact that he can trace his lineage as a songwriter back to hallowed roots through luminaries like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, who could in turn trace their lineage back to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. In terms of country music, that’s the equivalent of being a descendant of, say, King David.

Earle has been thinking about these things a little more than usual lately, particularly in the wake of his uncle’s death.

“My uncle was an alcoholic all his life,” Earle said. “He was a heroin addict until he was locked up and went to prison the second time. This is the guy who put my first guitar in my hands, gave me my first Beatles records. [He] was a lot of the reason that I did this. He also gave me my first shot of dope.”

Earle is no stranger to death or addiction. In addition to losing his uncle, he also lost his father recently, and in the late ’90s he watched addiction slowly kill his mentor, Van Zandt. But, on the new album, Earle seems to have made peace with these ghosts. Or, at least he seems to be trying.

“I’ve seen other friends of mine that grew up with different ideas about spirituality than just the Judeo-Christian, ‘Struggle in this world, and then you’ll get your reward in the next one’ approach to spirituality,” he said. “I’ve seen people outside of that that weren’t as scared as my father, and their loved ones weren’t quite as heartbroken.”

Earle says those different attitudes toward death helped give the album a peaceful, sometimes hopeful feel even though it deals with dark subjects. It all makes sense, given the way his own life has gone. In the early ’90s, Earle teetered over the edge of the same void that would eventually swallow his uncle and Van Zandt. But, he kicked booze and heroin in the mid-’90s, and since then he has unleashed a flow of creativity that includes a play; a book of short stories; a series of acting gigs that led him to David Simon’s HBO show, Treme; and his first novel, released this spring, with the same title as the new album. The novel follows a defrocked doctor who’s addicted to morphine and haunted by the ghost of his old patient, Hank Williams.

It’s interesting that so much of Earle’s fiction deals with music, especially because his music has so much in common with fiction, with songs and lyrics that often weave intricate story lines. he attributes much of that to his musical mentors.

“I had really good teachers, and one of them was maybe the greatest story songwriter that ever lived, and that’s Guy Clark,” Earle said. “The difference between Guy and Townes was, Townes would tell me to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and War and Peace, and always put the cap back on the whiskey in case somebody kicks it over. Guy would show me how he mechanically went about writing songs—not necessarily that I had to do it that way; I had to adapt it to something that worked for me. But, he was much more of a direct teacher.”

In fact, teachers seem to have appeared in Earle’s life at almost every crucial juncture—first, his uncle with a guitar and the Beatles, then Clark and Van Zandt when he was a young songwriter, then David Simon when he was getting into acting as a way to combat addiction. Now, perhaps, Earle is in a position to teach a few things himself.

“Teachers are out there,” Earle said. “I think students have a responsibility to learn.”