Steve Earle Loud & Clear

Steve Earle has a lot on his plate.

He’s working on his memoir, making a pitcher of iced tea in his New York City home and prepping for a tour that will bring Earle and his band the Dukes to the Vic Theatre at 8 p.m. Sept. 21. The Mastersons open.

Earle used to deal a five-course serving of trouble.

“Actually today is the 19 year anniversary of me being claimed (sober) ” Earle says in an early September phone conversation from New York. “I’ll no longer be a teenager on my next anniversary. It’s a long time not to get f—-d up . Most people don’t get f—-d up all the time like I did. I have figured out I don’t get a medal for doing what most people are already not doing. But it is a big deal to me so I have to observe it. I still go to meetings and call my sponsor.”

Earle is working on the memoir he swore he would never write.

Like Bob Dylan’s acclaimed “Chronicles: Volume One,” Earle is writing in detailed segments: The first section spins around the mentorship of the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. The second section deals with bottoming out in Nashville, culminating in a prison sentence in which Earle finally got clean after a 26-year heroin addiction. The third and final section is about recovery and reflection on the 1995 comeback album “Train A’ Comin’.”

That organic country album was lovingly produced by William Alsobrook, a friend of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Cash and Jennings sent letters of support through the Tennessee court system, offering a helping hand when most of the music industry had cut bait on Earle.

“I’m working on a prologue now,” Earle says. “It’s explaining why my father wasn’t the center of the section about mentors. It’s not because my Dad and I were cross faced or anything. I left home really young and I wanted to do a specific thing. And I found a mentor or two. And I found other mentors who weren’t so good at other stuff. And that’s what part two is about. Part three is about my grandfather who became a hero to me after I got claimed because he started most of the 12- step meetings in Northeast Texas and I figured out who those guys sleeping on his couch were. That’s still kind of the center of my universe, 19 years today actually.”

Earle doesn’t mind the Dylan memoir comparison. “That’s what I’m aiming at,” he says. “Keith (Richards) didn’t write his book. I’m writing this book. It was right when I moved to New York that ‘Chronicles’ came out. I read that and ‘Positively Fourth Street (The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, 2001)’ and ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’ (The Dave Von Ronk memoir with Elijah Wald). Reading all those books at the same time was great, because this is my neighborhood now.  I love this neighborhood because this is where my job was invented. I’m actually in talks about writing the book myself and writing additional music to adapt (his 2007 album) ‘Washington Square Serenade’ into a musical on Broadway, eventually.”

The memoir is slated to be released in early 2015, as Earle turns 60.

Most people figured he would be dead by now.

Tony Fitzpatrick and Steve Earle–a boatload of heart

Chicago has always been a welcoming landscape of support for Earle. Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick has done all of Earle’s album covers since 1996’s “I Feel Alright.” Earle has appeared on the stage of the Steppenwolf Theater solo and with Fitzpatrick.  WXRT-FM has always been radio friendly to Earle. Jam Productions took a chance on Earle when no one else would.

On July 19, 1993 Earle performed one of the most emotionally naked concerts I have seen. He had bottomed out at 125 pounds in early 1993 and had “bulked up” to 160 pounds by the time he hit the stage at Schuba’s on the north side in a Jam-booked show.

Before 400 fans and friends Earle played acoustically and had laryingitis. He was so frail he stress-fractured a foot by stomping his black boot on the stage.

He looked like a country Chet Baker.

Earle asked the audience to help him sing “I Ain’t Never Satisfied.” He sang “Close Your Eyes,” a tender ballad that says even with eyes closed, the world doesn’t stop spinning.

Earle told the audience, “Sometimes I think that was a lullaby to myself.”

After the show we adjourned for Mexican food at a north side restaurant. Earle fell asleep at the table, zonked out by methadone.

Earle is now wide awake, moving forward.

“I just put the errand list on my phone,” he says. “I have to pick my son up at 4:45. I’m trying to get everything done before I pick him up. I’m writing now.”

Earle finds it is more difficult to write his memoir and his novels than writing a song. “Songs have instant gratification,” he says. “Sometimes they can be a lot of work but in a relatively short period of time you get to the end of it. With a long form thing it is much easier to lose sight of what you are doing. I sort of agree with (Norman) Mailer in that I enjoy having written way more than I do actually writing it. It is physically hard. I type like a sportswriter. It becomes a chiropractic issue. That’s when I really get going. The last book (the 2011 novel “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”) , I was working on it every day for a couple of months, I was pretty beat up when it was over.

“There’s other stuff I have to do, too. I have to deal with a set list. I have a (Sirius-XM) radio show and there’s a day I could be writing that I spend programming the radio show and recording it (The North Mississippi All-Stars were a recent guest, paying tribute to the late great Jim Dickinson). Now I’ll be out on tour until Nov. 2 and just do a handful of solo shows over the winter just to keep the lights on. Most of the time I’ll be working on trying to get this memoir finished.” Next spring Earle will begin production on a Marianne Faithful record in Nashville.

Earle is touring to support “The Low Highway,” released in mid-April on New West Records. “The Low Highway” is the most American—not Americana–sounding record of Earle’s career. Earle’s touring band includes long time drummer Will Rigby, Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin (The Mastersons) and bassist Kelley Looney, also a pastry chef who lives in Paris. Earle’s wife Allison Moorer is staying in New York to take care of their 3 1/2-year-old son who is autistic.

The 12 “Low Highway” tracks are a deep examination of Amercian music, with stops at bluegrass, folk, country, the driving blues of “Pocket Full of Rain,” and the Cajun-Country “After Mardi Gras,” co-written with Lucia Micarelli, Earle’s co-star in the HBO series “Treme.” “Invisible” is a hard core ballad with a counterpoint melody about the disenfranchised.

The music is certainly not marginalized, as is the “Americana” label. Lots of things happened.

“The first thing was I decided I had the best band I ever had on the stage when I was out supporting the last record,” he says. “I started writing songs as we were touring and we were banging them out on sound checks. I was writing about what I saw outside the (bus) window. I realized what I was seeing was an America a lot closer to what Woody Guthrie saw. None of us that do this job that Bob (Dylan) invented as he was creating himself in Woody’s image–including Bob–ever saw times as hard as Woody saw first hand. What I do has roots in the depression. It’s even come around style wise, where kids are dressing like the depression. They’re really dressing like the Band but the guys in the band were dressing like the depression. My son included.

“Americana is a weird term. So much of the music comes from the other side of the pond. I thought I was ‘Americana’ but last time at the Grammys I got nominated in the ‘Folk’ category. I don’t even get nominated for ‘Americana’ awards. I think you have to live in Nashville or Austin to get nominated for those. I have mixed emotions about that term. I felt like I was being ghettoized, but at the same time I was grateful to have a chart that cared about singer-songwriters.

“When I started out (in 1986) we were still marginalized. David Geffen had to have Tom Waits because he didn’t want anybody else to have him. It made him look cool. But he didn’t waste an ounce of energy trying to figure out how to sell more Tom Waits records. He was worried about trying to sell more Guns n’ Roses records. I was there. I was married to an A&R person that worked for him when all that was going on. I’m proud of every record I’ve made. The records I made the 1980s were a lot slicker and they didn’t sound exactly the way I wanted them to sound, but I wasn’t concerned. I was just trying to figure out how to write better songs and stay high. Then, when I got clean and had the energy to devote more things in a day that had to do with my job than stupid shit, I started taking control of more things.” 

Including taking control of the determination that slayed his demons.

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