If you've got tickets to Steve Earle's soldout Wednesday night show at Carrboro ArtsCenter, you'll doubtless hear even more Townes Van Zandt songs than usual -- seeing as how Earle's new album is a tribute to his late great mentor. By then, it's even possible that Earle will have finished the first draft of his novel, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." When I interviewed Earle last week, he was singing the deadline blues.
"I promised my editor I'd hand her a draft today," Earle said, laughing a bit. "Not gonna happen. She'll track me down in a couple of days and find out it will probably be late next week. I've got a few more things to do on it, so I'll try to get some work done on the bus. I'm almost there."
Given the title, it should come as no surprise that Hank Williams figures prominently in Earle's novel.
"Yeah, Hank Williams' ghost is a character," Earle said. "The protagonist is based on the idea that there was this semblance of a doctor who was traveling with Hank when he died -- and who was not there by the time the police showed up. So it's 10 years after Hank's death and he's in San Antonio, a defrocked doctor heroin addict who supports his habit by performing abortions. And when he gets really [expletive] up, Hank's ghost shows up. It also gets into the Kennedy assassination, and various assorted animal spirits. It's not a comedy, I don't guess, but some of it is really funny."
For more, see the interview in Sunday's paper. And speaking of Earle's literary endeavors, below is an interview from 2002, when he was coming into town to do a couple of readings from his short-story collection.
Rock 'n' Read
By David Menconi, News & Observer
May 26, 2002
However hard you're working, chances are good that Steve Earle is working much, much harder. Long one of the best singer-songwriters in music, he is also a budding multimedia artist who is practically omnipresent.
Earle initially broke through in the mid-1980s as country music's answer to Bruce Springsteen, and he has since lived a life that seems almost fictional. He has had six marriages to five different women, and he survived a wicked drug habit that nearly killed him in the early 1990s.
Since cleaning up in the mid-'90s, Earle has cranked out one terrific album after another. A self-described "borderline Marxist," he also finds time to crusade for long-shot causes, including the anti-death-penalty movement. Capital punishment remains one of his most moving song topics. His most recent studio album, 2000's "Transcendental Blues," closed with "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" -- written about Jonathan Nobles, whose 1998 execution Earle witnessed.
The death penalty also figures into Earle's emergence as a prose writer. He's working on a play about the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who was put to death in Texas in 1998 (the first woman executed there since the 1860s) despite an apparently sincere repentance and religious conversion. The play will open this fall at Nashville's Broadaxe Theatre, a progressive company that Earle co-founded.
In addition to writing haiku and a novel, Earle has also published the short-story collection "Doghouse Roses" (Houghton Mifflin, 207 pages, $12 paperback). The 11 stories range from Tom Clancey-style techno-pulp to unabashed romanticism, with a cast of Vietnam veterans, hitchhikers, small-town characters, drug runners, cold-blooded murderers and minor rock stars who bear more than passing resemblance to the author himself.
Earle is coming to the Triangle for two readings, including one at Cat's Cradle -- the nightclub where he played a 1996 benefit show for MAJIC, Mothers Against Jesse (Helms) in Congress. He recently stopped working just long enough to come to the phone, opening with a dry quip: "I couldn't get a dentist's appointment, so I thought I'd do some interviews."
When you're as busy as Earle is, interruptions are not welcome.
Q - So your appearances here will be just readings, without any musical performance?
A - No. I've done some things with Tony Fitzpatrick, a poet and an artist who does all my record covers and also this book cover, where I play and we both read. There was this one arts festival that was danged close to performance art, in fact. But it's a different deal. When I'm promoting a book, I'm promoting a book. Unless it's a death-penalty event or something, if I bring my guitar, I have to have money for that. It's my day job. I'm working on a new record now, and I'll be back to play when it comes out.
Q - Speaking of your next record, will it be more rock or more country?
A - It's a rock record, really political, and it will probably get me deported. It's probably the most immediate record I've ever written, and I'm rushing to get it out before the end of the year. I want it out by this fall because some stuff is happening, and I think some of this record is perishable. I've got two more songs to write. Everything else is mixed and ready to go.
Q - Are you still active in anti-death-penalty causes?
A - At this point, I'm more involved with political solutions. I work with an organization called the Justice Project. That's about the fairness of capital prosecution, trying not to condemn innocent men in this rush to justice and body counts. The Justice Project tries to make sure that every inmate accused of a capital crime has a first-rate lawyer. There are 3,600 people on death row right now, and if they all had qualified lawyers representing them, I promise you, at least two-thirds of them would not be there.
What I try to avoid is situations where I get personally involved, visiting inmates. I did that, and they killed some people I knew. So I've done all that I can spiritually absorb.
Q - You've written a play about Karla Faye Tucker?
A - I finished the first draft, and we did a reading a month ago. It's waiting on me finishing the last two songs for the record. We've got a production schedule -- rehearsals in late September, and it opens Oct. 24. So another draft needs to take place, some rewriting on one section and some character-strengthening. I don't know that I'd do it again, because it's a lot of work to write in 3D, but it's been very cool. Everybody tells me to wait until I see it onstage. If I get hooked, it will happen at that point.
Q - Three of the "Doghouse Roses" stories involve an unnamed American protagonist -- a Vietnam veteran who turns to contraband smuggling after the war. They could almost be the same person.
A - Oh, they are the same guy, at distinct stages. I wrote "The Internationale" first. ... I was more interested in the woman character. I set it in Bergen, Norway, because there was this woman in the coffeeshop at the hotel where I was staying who just looked interesting. So I superimposed that story on her.
Anyway, I kinda liked it, and I became intrigued with the American, so I decided to figure out where he came from. I wrote "Jaguar Dance" next, and by the time I wrote "The Reunion," it was at the stage where this was destined to be a book. I had a deal, and had already spent the advance I was given. So I went to Ireland to try to write enough to finish the book, and figured out where he ended up with "The Reunion."
Q - For people familiar with the music industry, the story "Billy the Kid" (about a wunderkind songwriter who takes Nashville by storm, before becoming an unheard legend) is particularly intriguing.
A - That bar really exists. It was called the Blue Room and then the Idle Hour. I did see Faron Young and Porter Waggoner shooting pool there in 1974, and we used to hang out there and play the shuffleboard machine without quarters, had to keep score ourselves.
But the rest of it's a fable. That story is about everything that would never happen in Nashville in a million years. I got here in the middle of a renaissance with the whole Texas outlaw thing. There was a sort of bohemian community within the music business where the really great songs came from. Your staff songwriters in the '60s were people like Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Roger Miller.
But Nashville really kinda dumbed country music down in an irreparable way in the '90s. Country music wanted to be pop music for so long, and I think they finally made it. Now there's always been a lot of crap. Anybody who thinks disposable crap is not new has just never heard Little Jimmy Dickens' "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." But there also used to be a viable artistic community that was left alone, because people knew they were doing something that most people in this town did not know how to do.
Q - Why hasn't VH1 ever done a "Behind the Music" on you?
A - Well, Country Music Television just did their version. They did way too much on the drugs, of course. Yes, that was five years of my life. But on either side of that is 10 records, a lot of songs and other stuff that's probably more interesting to anybody but the people at VH1. But they're all the same company these days.