Steve Earle has been a lot of things to a lot of people during his life in music. He's been the rock & roll rebel; the country outlaw; and the outspoken folk singer, often all at the same time. But no matter his style, Steve Earle has always been a master storyteller.
With I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive—the title of both his new album and a related literary work—Earle carries on the tradition of creating mythology out of life's many characters and scenes. Named for the last song Hank Williams released during his lifetime, Earle weaves a new narrative into the circumstances surrounding Williams' untimely death at the age of 29. The song also served as inspiration for the album, a set loaded with musings on mortality told by a world-wised narrator.
A longtime Peavey artist, Steve Earle recently caught up with the Peavey Monitor from the road to talk about his life, his work and the story behind his new album and book.
You've had many phases as a songwriter, from rockabilly to roots rock, bluegrass and folk. What were your primary influences, and what made you want to be an artist?
There were the Beatles and Stones, and Dylan and Haggard. I ended up being a folkie because my Dad wouldn't let me have an electric guitar. I wanted to sound like Hendrix but I couldn't make my acoustic guitar sound that way. Crosby, Stills & Nash came out when I was in high school, and I gravitated to that because I could emulate it. I also wasn't old enough to play places that served liquor, but I could play coffee houses. I didn't really play electric until I was in my 20s, playing in Nashville. I grew up when there was a lot of really good music. Then Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello came along, and it was a whole new model of singer/songwriter.
I've gone through periods where I play a lot of electric guitar, like on Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. I've been in an acoustic period now for a while, and on this tour I'm only playing electric guitar on six or seven songs. I'm playing mandolin, acoustic and other instruments. I was a late-blooming electric guitar player. I actually use the same gauge strings on electric and acoustic—12s with a wound G—and I have the same approach to both: I just bang the hell out of 'em! My playing has changed some over the years, though. I use a thumb pick now, and I am a lot better than I was a few years ago.
Your friendships with folk-influenced songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were big parts of your formative experience. What did you learn about music from Townes and the experiences you shared?
I think a lot of [Townes'] influence was more about the music he pointed me to. What we all had in common, all three of us plus a lot of other people from back then, was the music we were all hearing at the same time in Houston. We all saw Lightnin' Hopkins in the same room at the same time. ZZ Top started in Houston. I don't think that could happen in any other place. Houston has a grit that other places in Texas don't have.
I met those guys when I was really young—I was 17 when I met Townes. What he really did was influence the way I carry myself as a musician. He was making music the best way he could. He wasn't concerned about making money; he never gave it one second's thought. He also was his own worst enemy and shot himself in the foot every chance he got, but that's a separate issue.
Your music conjures such precise emotions and vivid scenes that it's hard to believe your work could be anything but autobiographical. Do you consider yourself an autobiographical writer?
Yeah, some of it is. Sometimes the person talking is me and sometimes it's not. "John Walker's Blues" is not. Sometimes there's a bit of me, about what I believe and what I feel. But it's dangerous with first-person narratives to assume that it's the person speaking about himself. "Tennessee Blues" and "Guitar Town" are about me dealing with the state of me at the time, which I probably would think is boring to people except for the fact that people relate to other people. [My songs are] about the similarities between people rather than the differences.
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" is the title of your latest record and also a novel that serves as a companion work. What was the inspiration for the project?
I published a collection of short fiction about ten years ago and my editor wanted me to write a full-length novel, and he kept trying to come up with ways to trick me into doing it. [laughs] There is this book called "Coming Through Slaughter" about Buddy Bolden, who was a legendary cornet player at the turn of the 20th century. He never made recordings in the prime of his career, and he went crazy at some point, so we don't know what he sounded like at his peak. But Louis Armstrong did. Louis was to Buddy what Townes was to me. That [story] inspired me to turn to a legend that was built around my own day job: a songwriter in Nashville.
At the time of his death, Hank Williams was traveling with a doctor who claimed to have the cure for alcoholism, but it turns out that he wasn't a doctor at all. For "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," I thought that story would be more interesting if he was a real doctor. But the real person [in Hank's story] was a quack who claimed he could cure alcoholism with chloral hydrate—which actually does work if you consider that you can't drink when you're dead.
You've said that the book and the album are musings on mortality, but they're also redemptive stories. You've also led an extraordinary and redemptive life. As a writer, how much of your life is reflected in Doc?
Some of it is. I think I tend to write harrowing scenes about addiction, but I try to lead [the reader or listener] back again. Redemption is important. I don't believe in art that is not redemptive in the long run. I believe in happy endings. I like there to be a little light at the end of the tunnel.
In recent years, your duets with Allison [Moorer] have become a focal point of your performances. How has that artistic union affected you creatively?
We tour together; it's a lifestyle choice. We have two busses, and we have our 16-month-old baby on the bus. He took his first steps on the bus! She missed most of the Townes tour because she was pregnant—she did the first leg. The Revolution tour was the first we did together. Before that I took Garrison Starr out with me. I figured out that if I go out with a female opener, I can have a duet partner. I have been fascinated with the idea of writing a duet that was constructed as a duet. I try to do one duet per album. They are always written for us to sing together, but on this record, I didn't write it for us to sing—I wrote for it Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, but they didn't complete their second album so we ended up recording it.
The Peavey Classic® 50 guitar amplifier has been part of your live setup for years. When did you first start using it?
I used the Peavey VTM™ [guitar amplifiers] in the '80s. I had DECA™ power amps and Peavey mixing consoles in my home studios in the '80s, too, and when I got out of jail in '94 I discovered the Classic 50 by accident. I use a lot of vintage amps in the studio—I tend to like class A amps—but I never liked carrying vintage gear around because it can be really undependable, and I had bad luck with blowing them up. My VTMs had always been great.
I started using Classic 50 amps—the 4x10 ones—and I even added a second 4x10 cab, which totally changes the way they sound. And they sound good to begin with. That rig with eight 10s is a great-sounding rig. I've used them since probably '96 on the I Feel Alright tour. I usually try to get a fresh pair for every tour, so every two years I would give the others to somebody who needed an amp.
On the last two tours I didn't bring any electric stuff—it was all solo—and then the flood happened in Nashville, and me and Peavey were in the same building. It got everything. I had probably six Classic 50s and they were lost in the flood. I knew this would be a band tour so I got two Classic 50s again. We play loud and have a lot of instruments on stage, and I thought that maybe 8x10s were overkill, so we started rehearsals with the 50s.
Then I thought, maybe I can downsize and give my houseman less trouble, so I got a Classic 30. Those amps have a nice jangly tone, a class A kinda thing, and I love the way they sound. I fell in love with the Classic 30, and they've proven themselves on the road. I was apprehensive to change it, but we're at 40 shows and the Classic 30 is up there running all night! M