Steve Earle: Hardcore Troubador Page 2

"I had always heard that there was a doctor traveling with Hank Williams when he died. [After the death] he suddenly vanished. I toyed with that idea. The first place I went was Marty Stewart, because he has a large collection of country-music memorabilia, including a letter from Toby Marshall to Hank's mother. Toby Marshall was the guy I always heard was the doctor, but it turns out that Toby Marshall wasn't a doctor at all. He was a quack who called himself a doctor. His pitch was that he could cure alcoholism by treating alcoholics with chloral hydrate, which is a barbiturate. Chloral hydrate is a Mickey Finn. [After Hank's death,] Toby sent Hank's mother a letter basically saying, 'I ain't did nothing."

The second half of the Hank-related blitz is Earle's first album of original material since 2007. Coming after three Grammy-winning albums—The Revolution Starts . . . Now (2004), Washington Square Serenade (2007), and Townes (2009)—I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is a mash-up that combines two songs Earle wrote for Joan Baez, "God Is God" and "I Am a Wanderer"; the theme he wrote for the HBO series Treme, "This City"; and eight tunes written specifically for this record. The Baez tunes appeared on her 2008 album, Day After Tomorrow, which Earle produced.

"I took her a bunch of songs and she said, 'No, I don't want to hear any more songs. These are the songs I've been listening to and this is what we're going to record.' I said, 'This is only eight songs, Joan.' And she said, 'Yeah, you're gonna write the rest.'"

In what's become de rigueur for Earle albums, at least since his marriage, in 2005, to singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, there's a duet with his wife, "Heaven or Hell." He assured me, with a chuckle, that it's not a metaphor for their marriage.

Another songwriting flavor that's now a feature on every Earle album, Celtic traditional tunes, is represented by an exceptionally strong performance of the original "Molly-O." Ireland and Scotland have figured prominently in his music since "The Galway Girl" appeared on Transcendental Blues (2000). The subject of Ireland sets him off on a rapid burst of Earle-esque associative oratory. Of all his many talents, this shy and retiring New Yorker can friggin' tawk.

"I think it [Ireland] always has been there. I think Guitar Town . . . certainly by Copperhead Road, it's always been there. We spent a lot of time moving songs on Guitar Town into F-sharp or something with a capo, just because I had so many songs in G. That big, huge G is still a huge part of who I am."

"I met Mike Scott [leader of the Irish band The Waterboys] in the '80s, and it's Mike Scott that basically steered me towards Galway. 'Cause that's where he made [the band's 1988 album] Fisherman's Blues, and that shit's primal. All of what I do is really one of two things: either that music or the blues. And they're both kind of the same thing. I'm more weighted towards that than I am seventh and ninth chords and the blues, although that's certainly not absent in my music. I'm a folkie. Coffeehouses are where I come from because I was too young to play in bars when I started. And that's huge . . . the idea of the musicologist approach to it comes from all those folksingers that I knew when I was very impressionable. Townes [Van Zandt] was a folksinger. And John Lomax III, who was my first manager and managed Townes at one point, and his father, who managed Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, they were all Houston, the Houston Folklore Society. I got there at the tail end of all that, but I saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins in the same room at the same time, and that was a huge influence.

"Houston's the most important city in Texas music, not Austin. As far as music that counts. Lightnin', Mance, ZZ Top, Leadbelly, those songs are about Houston, not Austin. It's more of a real city. A lot of people in Texas badmouth Houston, but I just think they're pussies. It's a lot more serious place than Austin. Singer-songwriter Guy Clark told me—and I have no idea whether this is true or not, it's a great story—legend has it that André Previn was brought in, Houston was always trying to buy itself culture. It's the only city in the United States that did not exist before 1900—completely and totally established in the 20th century. There was nothing there before 1910. And so they hired Previn to come in, it was like a three-year contract, as the conductor of the Houston Symphony. He did his first performance and it went off without a hitch, and then he walked outside through this entrance that had been built for him and said 'Taxi,' and nothing fucking happened."

The centerpiece of the new album is "Every Part of Me," a love song Earle wrote to Moorer one night while he was on the road. "I was desperate and lonesome, in East Anglia [UK], the middle of nowhere. Allison wasn't on tour with me because she was pregnant. It's one of my favorite songs that I've ever written. [Love songs are] the songs you work the hardest on. Arguably, your best craft goes into them. They definitely have something to propel them. There's no shortage of inspiration."


volvic's picture

Love the album he did with the Del McCoury band, good stuff.  He keeps getting better with age, hope to run into him one day, although I rarely make it down to the Village.