Steve Earle’s middle-school drama teacher couldn’t imagine his most restless pupil ever reading Shakespeare, much less writing iambic pentameter poetry of his own. But that’s exactly what the famed “Hardcore Troubadour” did for the “The Tennessee Kid,” a new tune that blends The Bard and the blues. The song’s loquacious lyrics and pedal steel riffs are a standout on Terraplane, Earle’s 16th studio album, which was released on Feb. 17. Despite having recorded such a slew of LPs, winning three Grammys, penning a novel and a play, and acting on critically acclaimed series like The Wire and Treme, Earle readily admits that his talents weren’t always apparent.
“The only reason I know anything is that I’ve always been a reader. I’ve only got an eighth-grade education, so I never made it to iambic pentameter in English class,” Earle, who recently turned 60, says with a chuckle during a recent interview with Paste. He goes on to reminisce about the few mentors who inspired his love of literature and the arts just as he was dropping out of school and running away from home to pursue a singer/songwriter career at the age of 14. “I had a couple of teachers who knew what they were looking at, who knew that I wasn’t going to be around for very long. So they concentrated on pointing me toward the good stuff to read and listen to. One of them was my drama teacher, and another was a biology teacher who also had a local country band. The biology teacher turned me on to a lot of books, and the drama teacher gave me my first copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That was released before my time, so I wouldn’t have heard it without him.”
Earle could have used more of that nurturing guidance during his early years on the road, as he fell prey to the troubling whims that seemed so obvious to everyone who knew him as a boy. In Houston (the cultural hub nearest his San Antonio hometown), Earle performed and partied with notoriously dysfunctional songsmiths like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, before eventually descending into addiction, homelessness and a 60-day jail sentence for heroin possession in the early ‘90s. But he never faced that turmoil alone, a point that he’ll elaborate on in his upcoming memoir, which he plans to call I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye.
“It’s about recovery, largely. It’s not about my whole life, but it’s about the mentors I’ve had,” Earle says, adding that it will be divided into three acts: “The first is about Townes and Guy, and some other people I knew when I was coming up. The middle part’s about a couple of people I bought drugs from and was locked up with, who mentored me through that period. Their intentions were not good, but without them I probably wouldn’t be here.”
The memoir’s final section will cover his most crucial tutelage of all: “I’m going to finish with a description of my grandfather, who started most of the 12-step meetings in Northeast Texas. Because of him, I grew up with the ‘Serenity Prayer’ and the 12 steps painted on the wall, but I still ended up where I ended up,” Earle says, before adding that his grandfather “became a hero to me, once I decided I didn’t want to die.”
Earle is unsure if the half-finished memoir will detail how addiction affected other members of his family. He’s more than aware that fans will want to read about his inhibited parenting in the midst of that binging, a topic that has been well-documented in interviews with his son, Justin Townes Earle. A burgeoning songwriter in his own right, Justin released an album last month called Absent Fathers, has suffered his own inebriated run-ins with the law, and even told this reporter about his father’s corrupting influence during a 2012 interview, saying: “Everybody tells me my dad’s a legend, but I always remember him as the guy that stole my Nintendo for crack money.”
The elder Earle doesn’t begrudge his son for such comments, mainly because he’s ignorant of them.
“Justin will give you plenty of material about that stuff, I’m sure,” Steve Earle says, before adding: “I don’t read articles about myself. I’m not going to read this piece that you’re interviewing me for now, so what makes you think I’m going to read one about Justin? Whatever Justin says is what he says, and that stuff can be really hurtful if I read it. So I just don’t. And then we get along just fine.”
Those father/son reunions have gone smoothly as of late, the most famous being their duet of “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold,” on 2009’s Townes, an album that covers beloved tunes written by Steve Earle’s formative mentor.
“The thing that many people don’t realise now is just how funny Townes was,” he says of Van Zandt’s persona at the peak of his career in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, before he was ravaged by addictions of his own and eventually died in 1997. Earle goes on to describe Van Zandt’s stagemanship: “He could get away with these stupid, deadpan one-liners. One night he went onstage and said: ‘I went to my psychiatrist and told him: Doc, nobody ever talks to me. And he said: Next.’ And people laughed, because of his delivery.”
Earle adds that not only do people place too much focus on the tragic aspects of Townes’ life, they also glorify those grisly details. “Those people are the ones that draw some sort of correlation between all that crap and art, that good art somehow legitimises all that excess,” he says. “But that’s all just negative shit.”
Of course Earle concedes that some music buffs remain stubbornly fixated on his raw, early output—songs like “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “The Devil’s Right Hand,” and, above all, “Copperhead Road,” which became his first and biggest chart-topping single.
“Some people think the best work I did was when I was loaded,” Earle says. But he is quick to add that all of his Grammy wins came after he got sober, and that this later stretch of his career boasts some of his most impassioned releases— from the politically charged The Revolution Starts Now, to the tender Townes tribute, and now Terraplane.
He adds that the latter release is significant because it’s his first full-on blues album, sporting raucous ZZ Top-esque guitar solos and raspy tambourine heaves. For Earle, those elements reflect a feistiness that defies his circumstances as both a new divorcee (having recently split with his longtime wife and bandmate Allison Moorer last year), and as an aging roots rocker who’s expected to stick with mellower melancholic fare.
“Sometimes I’ll see my reflection out of the corner of my eye and wonder ‘Who let Allen Ginsberg in here?’” Earle says with a laugh, before adding: “I think men always see themselves as 20, and it’s always sort of shocking when you have to deal with getting older. But being 60 doesn’t really bother me.”
Terraplane has helped Earle stay spry as he delves into the LP’s youthful blues. But, once again, he had a seasoned veteran to guide him along the way. In fact, Earle attributes the album’s swampy Delta tone to slide and Stratocaster guitarist Chris Masterson, who not only tours with Earle’s backing Dukes band, but also fronts his own indie-folk duo with wife Eleanor Whitmore.
But Earle says it wasn’t easy to convince Masterson to strap on his axe, adding: “It was interesting to see Chris with a Strat in his hands, because it was what he’d cut his teeth on, but he’s kind of moved on from it, and he was a bit tired of it.” He adds that, after the initial reluctance, the guitarist and The Dukes fell into a bluesy groove that set Terraplane apart from the rest of Earle’s catalog. The Hardcore Troubadour goes on to say that Masterson is “kind of the heart of the record.”
Masterson tells Paste that he thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, before adding that he didn’t need too big of a push to start fretting those bluesy old chords. He says that, above all, he enjoyed the versatility of the sessions—how some of the tunes featured a harmonica-driven, Chicago blues sound while “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” a duet with Whitmore, had what Masterson calls a sassier, “Bessie Smith thing going on.”
In fact, the guitarist says such eclecticism has always been one of Earle’s greatest strengths.
“Steve is a really unique artist in that he has been able to tackle a lot of genres and do them well. I’ve liked all the records, and I’m really proud to be a member of the band,” Masterson says, adding that any naysayers who only listen to Earle’s early albums are missing some his very best work. But he admits those fissures are often unavoidable. “When you’ve worked that long, you’ll get some fans that won’t like certain songs. Some people don’t like Steve’s political stuff, and others embrace it, and so on. But I’ve never been one to disregard a pre- or post-rehab artist’s music. I don’t think that’s fair. If anything I’d say he’s more prolific now.”
Earle concurs with that last point, adding that if he’d maintained the lifestyle that made his first albums so raw, he “never would’ve written a book, or written a play. I wouldn’t have acted or done any of that if I was still getting loaded, because I barely had time to write songs and get onstage. And in the end I didn’t even have time to do that anymore, because it became a full-time job to support my habit. Since I got clean I’ve done good work in my 40s and 50s, and I look forward to doing more in my 60s.”