Tunes laced with political bile, powerful prose and a healthy acting career. Rik Flynn looks over a life of inspiration that led Steve Earle to new album The Low Highway
Outlaw singer-songwriter, vagabond poet, political activist, pariah for the dispossessed… Steve Earle has been called many things, all of which ring true. In fact, his rebel hero persona seems more at home within the dog-eared pages of some beatnik road novel than in real life. As a teenager he dropped out of college, left home, married for the first of seven times at 18, served an unorthodox apprenticeship under cult songsmith Townes Van Zandt, spent a ‘vacation in the ghetto’ during which he served time for drugs, toured the coffee bar circuit, and peddled his tunes to publishers for a crust.
Close to giving up entirely, he finally scored a hit for country star Johnny Lee and with a renewed confidence went on to write his #1 hit album Guitar Town, released in 1986. Despite his close brush with ‘cautionary tale’ status, this particular protagonist has since become a prolific and highly influential artist.
Earle is at the forefront of the roots music movement that succeeded Bob Dylan but aside from the poetic thunder he serves up via his acerbic wit as well as his gravel-road delivery and his ability to play a mean guitar, he’s also traded the pick for the quill over the years to tackle the kind of issues that most artists would swerve quicker than a hungry mongoose.
His 2011 narrative debut Doghouse Roses was a collection of short stories that broached the harsh realities of life for outcasts in the States. Later that year, his debut novel I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive went one step further and explored mortality via the grubby tale of a disgraced, drug-addicted doctor performing illegal abortions while haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams; it’s ‘a Harry Potter book for adults that got totally out of control,’ says Earle. He’s also excelled on the silver screen with gritty parts in The Wire, the 2009 film Leaves Of Grass, HBO’s excellent Treme series and an upcoming film called The World Made Straight.
Politics is another stage on which Earle has always felt comfortable. He took his opposition to capital punishment to the boards with off-Broadway play Karla, written about Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas after the death penalty was reinstated, and provided two songs for the 1995 film Dead Man Walking.
His 2000 album Jerusalem includes the controversial cut John Walker’s Blues, written about the captured US Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. The Revolution Starts Now followed in 2004, attacking the Bush administration. Not afraid to make his position clear, Earle has been awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star Award, has played numerous Landmine tours and benefits for Vietnam veterans as well as offering his support to Occupy Wall Street, Farm Aid and autism charities.
Surveying Earle’s activities, it’s easy to forget that, first and foremost, he’s a singer-songwriter. How come he feels the need to branch out into other mediums?
‘It’s a recovery thing,’ Earle muses. ‘I used to think I could only write songs; I turned down acting roles all the time when I was a lot better looking than I am now! I had to look at everything different when I got out of jail. Something really changed me and the way I lived. I started painting and finally figured out that doing all these other things reinforces my home base craft. I’m pretty fucking good at writing songs so I can get really comfortable, but if I take some time to do something different, when I come back I’m looking at things in a new way. I’m a little less complacent.’
The writing continues in earnest with both pick and pen: his new album The Low Highway is already receiving rave reviews, and another novel and a literary memoir are on the horizon. Earle’s commitment to the arts has helped him evolve to become a celebrated lyricist. ‘I looked at lyrics in a totally different way,’ states Earle. ‘That goes back to the short stories. For instance, Taneytown exists both as a short story and a song. I wrote the song first, but once I’d written that story I had a much stronger idea of the character, so I changed the song.’
An integral part of Earle’s story comes from his time spent in the inner circle of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, along with Emmylou Harris and others. ‘Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world,’ he once proclaimed. ‘I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.’ Earle clearly took his lead from his idol.
‘We all knew how special it was at the time, but there were things that were really fucked up about him,’ he reflects. ‘ Some people confused those things with being part of his gift. It used to bum me out that people didn’t know how good he was. He’d shoot himself in the foot when he was too fucked up to play shows. I saw him in a way that most people that know about him didn’t see. My Townes album  was based on my memory of those performances at the height of his powers. I knew that I was seeing someone that had made a commitment to write songs that were at a super-high artistic level. He wasn’t doing it to get rich.’
Earle then continued to Nashville to write for various publishing companies, eventually scoring a hit for country star Johnny Lee with When You Fall In Love. ‘I can say stuff in three minutes that I would have never learned if I’d just stayed in a coffee house environment,’ he adds. ‘Somehow in Nashville I learned how to get a lot said in a really short period of time.’ A brief (and unsuccessful) foray with rockabilly followed, and Earle lost his deal. He eventually found his feet with a little help from the Boss.
‘I’d been a Springsteen fan all along, but there was just something about seeing him come out and open with Born In The USA. It was around the time I was writing the first songs for an album and it dawned on me that I had to write a song to open the record. I went home and wrote Guitar Town, then I wrote the whole record in a few weeks. I got a deal with MCA when I was about halfway through that process, then Guitar Town was a country hit… which sort of surprised me.’
Guitar Town brought Earle everything he’d ever wished for – and a whole lot more besides. ‘I was 31 and I’d just about given up, so it changed everything,’ he recalls. ‘Immediately I started to get into trouble, ’cos I had money, and my drug habit had been held in check by my poverty – but I remember it all really fondly. I know exactly what night my dreams came true; it was one night in [music venue] Park West Chicago. From that point on I had a career.’
Earle has had the confidence to scrutinise many difficult topics, but the song John Walker’s Blues on his post-9/11 LP Jerusalem was one of the more controversial. ‘It didn’t scare me,’ clarifies Earle. ‘My son Justin and John Walker Lindh were exactly the same age, so when I saw him on TV, duct-taped to a board, I saw Justin… I saw a skinny 20 year old kid.’
It’s perhaps Earle’s ability to see the humanity in highly politically-charged subjects that makes him such a master of his art. ‘I don’t know why I’m able to do it, but I am. It comes pretty naturally. I feel strongly about things, so it translates into emotion. Artists shouldn’t be afraid to be political if they are inclined, but you need to do it with you eyes wide open. You got to be really fucking good at it to do it, too. You have to find the human side of it; if you start writing about political issues as talking points, then you’re lost.’
His latest record, The Low Highway, is further proof that a 58-year-old Earle hasn’t mellowed with age. ‘I’m a post-Bob Dylan singer/songwriter, and those of us that fit into that basically trace our lineage back to Woody Guthrie,’ he says. ‘Bob and a few other people that kind of invented this job were listening to Woody Guthrie singing songs about the Depression. The Depression was over and though the hard times were at the heart of that music, they were singing about it forensically.
‘All of a sudden, we’re writing about the same kind of stuff first hand. I didn’t think we would see it in our lifetimes, but unfortunately we are, so it became what I saw out of the window while we were on the road… it’s not The Grapes Of Wrath, but it’s the same kind of deal. People are hurting, and there’s less jobs every day. We’re going to have to decide to pay a little more money for a flat-screen TV – it’s really that simple.’
This sentiment is best heard in the title track. ‘The ghost of America watching me,’ he sings. ‘Through the broken windows of the factories, naked bones of a better day, as I rolled down the low highway.’ Outlaw poetry at its best.