The mid-1980s were an auspicious time for upstart country artists with down-tuned guitars. While Dwight Yoakam was out on the West Coast plundering the look and sound of Hank Williams, Steve Earle took a decidedly more original approach that mixed heartland-rock arrangements with evocative songwriting inspired by his hero, Townes Van Zandt.
A San Antonio native who'd relocated to Nashville, Earle climbed the country and rock charts with albums like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. But bad luck, and worse decisions, soon took their toll. By the early '90s, heroin addiction had derailed Earle's career and left him homeless on the streets of Nashville.
Happily, the musician has now been clean and sober for close to two decades. During that time, his music has continued to show more depth and diversity, from the strictly bluegrass sound of 1999's The Mountain to his collaboration with punk icon Patti Smith on a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Through it all, he still feels the presence of his troubled past. "There's ghosts in these streets callin' my name," he sang on last year's The Low Highway. "And I follow 'em down in the dark again."
In the following interview, Earle talks about the memoir that'll be published this fall, the addictions he'll never forget, and the music that helps keep him on track.
In your previous novel and stories, the characters tend to mirror some of the difficulties you yourself have faced in the past. Now that you're writing your memoir in an undisguised first-person voice, is that therapeutic for you? Or are there some things you'd just rather forget?
Well, there's nothing I'd rather forget, because I can't afford to forget. I have to rehash it a lot, because I still basically stay sober by attending meetings and contacting my sponsor and sponsoring people. So it gets talked about a lot, but in a sort of therapeutic environment.
The biggest bummer about writing a memoir, for me, is that when I was writing the novel and the short stories, I kind of liked those characters, because I didn't always know what they were gonna do next. But this guy, he's too predictable; I have days when I just don't fucking feel like writing about me.
So some days it's great to remember stuff that I've forgotten, because, unfortunately, my memory's pretty good. I remember stuff that happened 30 and 40 years ago in really, really precise detail.
When those kinds of memories do come back, how does it make you feel? Do you ever find yourself saying, "How could I have been so stupid?"
I'm pretty non-judgmental when it comes to myself, at least on my good days. I mean, I kind of have to be. There are days when I'm extremely hard on myself, but I can't afford to be that self-indulgent.
You know, beating yourself up, for an addict, is just trying to give yourself permission to use. And my life is pretty good. I mean, look, I don't have a lot of money — circumstances in my life have kept me from ever really saving any money — but I do have some really nice guitars, I have three great kids, and I live in New York City. I mean, at this point in my life, I need lots of live theater and Major League Baseball. Those are the two things I just need to have.
You've described your next album as a blues album. What kind of approach will you be taking to the genre?
I haven't recorded it yet. I'm recording in October, but a lot of it's gonna be with the Dukes. I'm gonna play more harp than guitar, which I'll mostly leave to Chris Masterson, because he's really good at it. He started out as kind of a Texas guitar prodigy. And there's gonna be some acoustic songs like the fingerstyle blues stuff that I've done in the past.
For me, when you come from where I come from and you're recording a blues project, the bar is pretty high. It's sort of like when I did the bluegrass record [1999's The Mountain, which featured the Del McCoury Band]. I've got a standard for doing it that might be a little higher than some people's, because I've witnessed a lot of great music in the genre, and so has Chris.
What about lyrically?
Well, some of the lyrics will be traditional, some of them will be more literary. Which is nothing new. That's what Bob Dylan has basically done since Bringing It All Back Home. With a couple of exceptions, he's made nothing but blues records.
I want to ask about the songwriting camp you've been doing. How did that come about?
It's called Camp Copperhead, and it's something I originated at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2000. And, you know, one of these days, I wanna try to teach it at the university level.
So I'm kind of working toward that. Basically, I beat people over the head and shoulders with the way I think about songwriting.
Your last album included the song about burning the Walmart down. Do you know if that album was actually sold in Walmart?
I've only actually gotten one album into Walmart in the last 20 years, and that was I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
It really was in Walmart?
It was in Walmart for about 30 seconds, yeah. I don't know why, but they ordered a handful of them.
So if a Walmart were to burn down, would they blame you? Would it be like Judas Priest and the kid who committed suicide?
You'd have to ask them. I don't know. I mean, I thought about that, I really did. But it's one of those things where it's a character that I created. And he's a little scary. And subsequently I did think about these things.
But, you know, I don't advocate burning Walmarts down. I don't shop at Walmart, and I haven't in 10 years, or maybe longer than that. When me and the girlfriend before Allison [Moorer, Earle's wife] split up, she for some reason took the Christmas tree. And so I had to go to Walmart and buy a Christmas tree, and that was the last thing I bought at Walmart.
You know, New York City's last mayor fought really hard to get Walmart in, and he failed. But we do have 7-Elevens, which in New York culture doesn't make any sense. And I'm afraid it will kill the neighborhood grocery store on my block, which carries two things that 7-Elevens don't have. And that's fresh produce and fresh flowers, 24 hours a day, which I find convenient, because I fuck up constantly.