Musician Steve Earle

Grammy-winning triple-threat artist talks about his latest projects, and performs a track from his new CD, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”

Since his '86 debut album "Guitar Town," Steve Earle has developed a following from both country and rock audiences. The multiple Grammy winner has collaborated with and written songs for numerous artists, for films and TV. He's also appeared on the big and small screens, including roles in HBO's The Wire and Tremé. Earle is known for his political views and wrote and directed a play on capital punishment. His latest projects are a new CD—his first original album material in four years—and a debut novel, both entitled "I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Steve Earle to this program. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is out now with an acclaimed new project called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” A book by the same title is also now available.

In just a few minutes he’ll perform a song from the new project, but first, Steve Earle, good to have you back on this program.

Steve Earle: It’s good to be here.

Tavis: You been all right?

Earle: Yeah, I’ve been great.

Tavis: How’s that little baby?

Earle: He turned one about three weeks ago and he’s getting ready to go on the road. It’s his first, like, he’s got – there he is.

Tavis: I see him at the keyboard.

Earle: He was making T-Bone Burnett nervous right there in that picture is what he was doing. T-Bone’s back there in the back, going, “What are you doing?”

Tavis: Yeah, “Get that baby off my board.”

Earle: That’s what – yeah, this was last November here in L.A. when we were making the record.

Tavis: What’s funny about that picture, this kid – I wonder if he even has a choice. His daddy is an artist, his mama is an artist, his Aunt Shelby Lynn is an artist. What choice does this kid really have?

Earle: No, he doesn’t. He’s at home right now, like, he got a ukulele for his birthday, but he thinks it’s a guitar. (Laughter) He’s got a piano, and he’s – Matt Umanov owns this guitar shop in my neighborhood and he’s always complaining about women that come in there saying, “My kid’s so musical, what kind of little guitar can I get?” He’s like, “Get them a stick and a pan or something.” (Laughter) I think I’m in there, “My kid’s so musical,” so it’s one of those deals.

Tavis: When I saw both of these items, the CD and the book, I thought about that old joke, the chicken and the egg, which came first. So which one came first here?

Earle: Well, as far as the title goes, the book. I’ve been working on the book for almost eight years. It seems like it should be a bigger book, but -

Tavis: (Laughter) After eight years, huh?

Earle: Yeah, it’s one of those. I think Tolstoy probably thought that, too, but it’s not my day job, so it’s a novel that I started – I published a collection of short fiction about nine years ago, 10 years ago, and started this pretty soon after that. Most of it was written in the last four or five years and it was always called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” because that’s the title of a Hank Williams song, and Hank Williams’ ghost is actually a character in this book.

Tavis: In the book, yeah.

Earle: So the record, I was just trying to write the best songs that I could write and I wanted to make a record with T-Bone Burnett. We had finished it and I was a little worried that I didn’t have a title, and then T-Bone and I had finished it and sequenced it and were listening to it, and I realized it was about some of the same things that the book’s about in the big picture, and that’s like spirituality and mortality.

I lost my dad three years ago is what it boils down to, and all the songs on this record and most of this book was written during that time leading up to that and right after that. I don’t know, the generation before you goes, you’re next, and just watching him go through that and the affect it had on my family, and you start thinking about all that stuff and so all that kind of figured into this.

Tavis: Let me take them one at a time. Since we’re talking about the record now and the inspiration for it in part being the passing of your father, let me stay with the record first and I’ll come back to the text. How does that experience impact the writing, the material, the content of the project?

Earle: Well, the first two songs were written right before my dad died, and they were written for Joan Baez to sing because I was producing Joan’s record. She showed up with eight songs and I brought a bunch of songs, and she says, “No, I don’t want to learn any of those songs. I have these eight songs I’ve learned.” I said, “Eight songs is not enough songs for a record,” being as polite as possible, because she is Joan Baez. (Laughter)

She said, “No, you’re going to write the rest of it.” So I said, “Oh, okay.” So I started writing songs. I wrote “God is God” and I wrote “I Am a Wanderer,” and I didn’t really think about it. I was writing songs the way that I write and for Joan to sing, and meanwhile my dad was really, really ill and he passed away before we finished the record, between the time that we actually recorded the tracks and the time that we mixed it.

Then when I got ready to make my own record I decided the songs were good enough that I wanted to record them myself, and then I kept writing songs over the course of the year, and I wrote all this stuff that I was getting out of this sort of existential zone that I don’t normally get into.

Even the chick song on this record sort of gets out into outer space a little bit, so it’s not – I don’t know, I was just writing differently than I had in a long time. Then when I put it all together I’d finished the book by that time and I just suddenly realized that maybe that’s what the connection was, was just this whole idea about – this society – I watched my dad go through what he went through in passing away and he was terrified.

He was really fighting for breath and he was really scared and it was really hard. A friend of mine died in Woodstock, which is where Alice and I have a house, and he had cancer and it was tough, but he was ill and then he was in remission and it looked like things were going to be okay, and then all of a sudden he got sick again, then he was gone pretty fast.

But he was surrounded by people that were kind of more like the way I kind of raised myself after I got on my own, and that was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and thinking about stuff from outside of this Western culture spiritually. I think he had a little easier time than my dad did. I think he was a little more ready to go than my dad was, and I think the people around him let him go, gave him permission to go.

Whereas the process for us, I think, in the West tends to be about the people that are staying behind rather than the people that’s actually got to make the trip sometimes, and it’s very different. So I was just thinking about all that stuff as I was writing all this stuff.

Tavis: What does watching your dad go through that ultimately say to you? I hear the comparisons you made about east and west, but what does it say about Steve Earle about his own mortality when you watch your father go through that?

Earle: Well, you’re next, and the main thing was note to self, was maybe there comes a point – I hope I’m able to recognize a point to maybe not fight so hard and do accept death as part of life, and I think that’s maybe what we do a little bit, maybe not quite as well as some other cultures do.

Tavis: Yeah. Now to the book, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” It’s a novel. The difference between – you wrote these short stories a few years ago.

Earle: Yeah.

Tavis: Those short stories were celebrated enough that it led to this book.

Earle: Yeah, oh, yeah.

Tavis: The difference between writing short stories and a novel is, for you?

Earle: Well, short stories was a stretch because I’m used to telling a pretty elaborate story in four minutes. That’s the kind of songs that I write. I had really good teachers and I learned how to do that, so I had to sort of learn how to slow down to write a short story.

I wrote a play after that. Then this was even more. A lot of the writing and rewriting that caused it to take so long had to do with me getting ahead of myself and having to go back, tear everything down and back up and just tell the story a little slower, because people – I read a lot. People hate good books to be over. I wish I could write a 700-page book. I just haven’t learned how to slow down that much yet so far, (laughter) so this is the best I’ve been able to do so far, but it’s very different.

Tavis: Speaking of being very different, without giving the story away, because it is a novel, how would you describe what this is?

Earle: Ooh, it’s -

Tavis: We know those of Hank Williams is here.

Earle: Yeah, it’s about a – I thought it was going to be just a simple ghost story. It kind of turned out to be sort of a Harry Potter book for adults. (Laughter) It’s about a defrocked doctor living in San Antonio, Texas in 1963 and he’s a heroin addict.

Tavis: Doc Ebersol.

Earle: Yeah. He supports his habit largely by performing abortions and patching up the odd gunshot wound in the middle of the night. And yes, 10 years earlier he was traveling with Hank Williams when he died, and Hank’s ghost has followed him to San Antonio, Texas. So it’s about heroin and Hank Williams and Roe vs. Wade. There you go. (Laughter)

Tavis: All in one book.

Earle: Yeah.

Tavis: That book is called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” a novel by Steve Earle, and the CD out now by the same name, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” That’s what you call branding and vertical integration.

Earle: We just named one after the other and just are attempting now to capitalize on the confusion. (Laughter)

Tavis: All the best to you.

Earle: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Earle: Thanks a lot.

Tavis: Up next, a special acoustic performance from Steve Earle, so don’t go anywhere. We’re back in just a moment.

From his new CD “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” here is Steve Earle performing “This City. Enjoy.

[Live musical performance]

[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Sue Mason

    I love Steve; been a long-time fan of his music and art.

  • mike

    cool interview- thanks for posting!! been a fan of Steve’s for years after hearing him first on KPIG radio.

  • tuffnterrible

    Tavis, I Have faithfully followed your show for the first five years. Then your regular time slot dissappeared, gosh since then I can’t find your show like that. Steve Earle is a BIG interest, so GPS is out?…PBS is where? If you have a new time slot…I sure have missed it.

  • Gail Chasin

    I’ve known Steve for over 3 decades and had the privilege of opening for one of his concerts in Nashville in the early 80′s. Although he may not remember me, I love who he’s become from the life he had earlier. I’m proud of him and cannot believe how poignant and talented he is. He just keeps getting better.

  • Crawford Redgate

    I owe so much to Steve Earle for the music he’s shared. He has helped maintained the path with the few others,that Woody Guthrie & Pete Seger blazed, which is so essential for Performing Singer/Songwriters* Thank you Steve Earle

  • Glenn

    Been a fan for years, nice interview with a super singer/songwriter!

  • tim l.

    Thanks Tavis…Great interview with a wonderful performer and in my opinion
    a great american! Steve has been in the forefront of many of the issues that have
    plagued this country for many years! (death penalty,wars etc….) I’ve had the opportunity
    to see Steve in concert many many times in my life and would highly suggest that if a person hasn’t…go…he never disappoints!

  • Tamika Thompson

    Thank you for your interest. For information on where to watch “Tavis Smiley,” visit – http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tune-in/.

    -”Tavis Smiley” staff

Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 3:41 pm