When he arrived on the scene in 1986, Steve Earle was lauded as a neo-Outlaw hillbilly singer (see Waylon and Willie). But as Mr. Earle’s songs got increasingly louder and the singer himself cultivated a biker look, his records straddled that lost consumer zone between Hank Williams and heavy metal. How was Mr. Earle’s poor record company to market the guy? The singer solved the problem himself by burning out on junk and blow. By 1994, he was just a junkie has-been doing jail time. But within 12 months, the parolee began his resurrection as the ghost of Woody Guthrie, releasing three astonishingly beautiful albums over the next three years ( Train A Comin’ , I Feel Alright and El Corazón ). For a man whose main concern only four years ago was figuring out how to stay out of jail, it’s been a miraculous transformation. As if that weren’t enough, now he’s got a little something going on the side: He’s writing fiction.
“I’m writing a book of short stories for Grove Atlantic Press,” Mr. Earle said, sitting at a vast conference table loaded with carbohydrates, in the Warner Brothers office at Rockefeller Center. He’s in town to do what he does best-sing for the citizens at a benefit for Central Park Summerstage on July 16 (concert at Rumsey Playfield, tickets at Tramps)-but right now he’s got literature on his mind. “It’s something I started to do after I got out of jail,” he said, leaning over the table. “Anton Muller’s [his editor] first question was, ‘Can we afford you?’ He figured I’d ask for more money than a new author normally gets. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on the work.”
Among the paper plates and cheese lay a photograph of Ho Chi Minh, a gift from a certain reporter who thought, for whatever reason, Mr. Earle might like it. “This is great,” Mr. Earle said. “Ho was a fascinating motherfucker. I’m going to hang this on the bus as our mascot.” Mr. Earle revealed that, in fact, one of his short stories is about Ho. It’s set in Paris during the 1920′s, where the future ass-kicker of both France and the United States was a pastry chef. “Paris was where the Vietnamese revolution was born,” Mr. Earle said, “in those Parisian coffeehouses.”
Mr. Earle knows from coffeehouses; he cut his intellectual teeth in a few around San Antonio, Tex., during the 1960′s. “My politics were forged there,” he said. “The Vietnam War was going on everyone’s television and the draft was hanging over our heads.” Mr. Earle didn’t get drafted, though. “I registered, but was never called. Probably if they drafted me, I would have bailed to Canada. I was deeply against the war. It got to be a tradition among my friends if someone had to register, we’d rent a limo and everybody would show up pretty toasted. I saw every chemical in the world used to get someone out of the Army.”
Mr. Earle, 43, took his share of psychedelics back in the San Antonio days, but nearly two decades later this resident of Nashville was doing heroin, cocaine and crack. When his habit got out of hand, he said, his compatriots sent Texas folk legend Townes Van Zandt (Mr. Earle’s mentor) round to his house to tell him to shape up. “He was drunker than a skunk and gave me a temperance lecture,” Mr. Earle recalled. “At the end of it, he goes, ‘Well, have you got clean needles?’ Yeah. ‘Every day?’ Yes. ‘All right then. Let me play you this song I wrote.’” Mr. Earle breaks up laughing.
Like Ho Chi Minh, Mr. Earle left jail-or as he put it, “summer camp for petty criminals”-a better writer than when he went in. He immediately regained the respect of Nashville luminaries like Emmylou Harris, who cut his song about being institutionalized, “Goodbye,” on her last album. And he refined his skills as a producer. Indeed, he was part of the production team behind Lucinda Williams’ new album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road . In 1996, Ms. Williams had just finished her first pass at a new record in Texas. She ran into Mr. Earle back in Nashville, where he’d just finished producing I Feel Alright . “I was just blown away by what I heard,” Ms. Williams said. “I held my record up to his and said, ‘I like yours better.’ So we went into the studio to cut a couple of tracks and see what happens.”
What happened was she recut her entire album with Mr. Earle. But then she went at it again later on in Los Angeles, minus Mr. Earle. (Her lengthy recording process was made public in The New York Times Magazine in September 1997 under the not too subtle headline, “Lucinda Williams Is in Pain.”)
“I felt really bad that happened,” Mr. Earle said about the article. “She took our tracks to the West Coast-a project that had just been jinxed from the start with a whole bunch of weird junk-and her manager invited a fucking journalist to the recording sessions! You close ranks when shit like that happens.” He paused. “Lucinda and I get along fine now. Although I pissed her off when I told an interviewer, ‘Lucinda made a great record, but I don’t think I’ll produce girls anymore.’” He let loose a bad-boy laugh. “I couldn’t help it. I just said it because it was funny. I don’t have a sexist bone in my body. I just wasn’t raised that way.”
Maybe. There’s an interesting little book on sale downtown at Tower Books titled Steve Earle ‘in Quotes’ (privately printed in the Netherlands). The chapter “Earle on Women” begins with his proclamation, “Women are about as helpless as a three-headed rattlesnake.” His remaining comments are limited to the five women he’s been married to (he married No. 4 again as No. 6). “I like being married,” he’s quoted as saying. “I’m just not very good at it.”
Considering how disgusted Mr. Earle is with contemporary country music, one might assume he’d be divorced from Nashville, yet his own label, E-Squared, is headquartered on the outskirts of Music Row. “It’s easier for me to operate in Nashville than anyplace else,” he explained. “If my tape machine breaks, you got someone to fix it.” He says his next record will be bluegrass. “A lot of the songs are turning out to be topical,” he adds, alluding to a song about Whitewater. “Remember, I’m a pretty hard-core socialist. People hardly know what that term means anymore. Or anarchy . Or even beatnik . Remember Maynard G. Krebs from Dobie Gillis ? He was so far away from what the Beats were-but that phenomena scared the fuck out of people. Maynard G. Krebs was the Establishment discrediting Beat on purpose.”
Mr. Earle leaned back in his chair and gave a lazy stretch before rhapsodizing about his favorite Beat saint, Jack Kerouac. “Biographers always claim he fed off of Neal Cassady, but I don’t think that that’s fair,” he said. “Everybody in that circle fed off of Kerouac. And it killed him. I really admire Ginsberg for letting people not forget about Kerouac, because he was ridiculed when he was alive. Kerouac was never accepted by the literary establishment. It hurt his feelings. It hurt him real deeply.”
One wonders if Mr. Earle will be accepted by the literary establishment when his book comes out in a year or two. But he doesn’t seem too concerned. “All I know is, when I send Anton something and I hear back that he really likes the story,” he said, “it makes my whole day.”