It can be easy to mistake Steve Earle for a modern American tall tale. But then, anyone who survives years of heroin addiction, seven marriages, jail time -- and the Nashville scene's Garth Brooks-dominated '90s -- probably deserves mythic status.
Earle spent his late teens developing his songwriting chops with the help of fellow rebel Townes Van Zandt, whom Earle would later call "a good teacher but a bad influence." By the time of his 1986 roots-rock debut, Guitar Town, he had already been hailed as the new Springsteen, but his wild ways and refusal to endear himself to the music industry put him more in line with older country outlaws like Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe. Over the years, with albums like last year's Washington Square Serenade, Earle, 53, has shifted back and forth between country, rock and bluegrass; he's also published a book of haiku and a book of short stories, and he recently played a recovering drug addict on HBO's The Wire.
How did you learn to tell stories in your songs?
Even before I ever wrote a song there were people in my family who were storytellers. And as I grew up I figured out that some of the stuff that some people were saying wasn't true, or maybe the story was true but the person who was telling it wasn't actually there, and that there was an art to that. And I met Townes when I was 16, which introduced me to Guy Clark, who is probably the best story-songwriter that ever lived. What Townes did was a lot more poetic, but what Guy does comes much more naturally to me, sort of a form of journalism that rhymes.
Were books an influence when you were growing up?
My introduction to literature was kinda slow because I only finished the eighth grade. So I didn't read Shakespeare and I didn't read any Greek literature or English literature or American literature, under any sort of curriculum. I got that stuff sort of secondhand from other people. I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and War and Peace basically because Townes told me I should read both of them. Turns out, he'd never fuckin' read War and Peace, but he thought I should.
You're known for being very political, including your opposition to the death penalty.
I grew up during the Vietnam War, so I was reading things that were very political, but reading In Cold Blood is definitely where my concentration on the death penalty came from. I read the book after seeing the movie. By the time the movie came out I was 12, but then I was relatively aware for a 12-year-old. I'm a lot different person than I was, but I am definitely the result of everything I was exposed to, so it's kind of hard to regret the influence of almost any idea. As long as you can come at it without, you know, joining a cult.
Is your drug use something you regret, or was it necessary to get where you are?
I do regret it, with the possible exception of ... well, if I hadn't been an addict and taken way too much of it, I would probably not regret having taken LSD. But I'm old, so they had real LSD when I was growing up. I'm not sure they [do any more]. I'm not sure that what they call marijuana is marijuana anymore, just from watching other people take it.
Have any young songwriters caught your attention, the way you caught the attention of Townes or Guy Clark?
Recently, the guy who impresses me the most is Willie Mason. He fingerpicks really well, has a really unique voice. And, uh, my kid isn't bad. He's getting pretty good, Justin. I love what Conor Oberst does, but it's a little different thing. He's got a different way of finding poetry in stuff. But Willie Mason is doing things a little more like I do; it's a little more old-fashioned form of the craft.
What's next for you?
I wanna finish this novel I've been working on for six years, that's the next deal. And then I wanna make another record of some sort. I'll probably be acting more, because I've certainly been asked to, and I like doing it. It's a break, and the insurance is better.
Steve Earle with Allison Moorer. 8 p.m. Thu., July 24. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $31-42. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org
- Steve Earle: singer, songwriter, American tall tale.