Steve Earle has his scars from more than 30 years in the music business. He had risen to the top on a string of hits that brought his outlaw country sound into the mainstream of popular music, but the hard, on-the-road living he sang about became his own undoing. Addiction problems derailed his career, and even sent him to jail. Earle takes a frank look at some of the lows he sees in himself and in the world at large on his fairly upbeat new album, The Low Highway.
You might miss it on first listen, but "Pocket Full of Rain" lays bare a period of weakness that brought Earle closest to failing after years of sobriety.
"I happened to write it at a moment when I felt most threatened in my recovery for almost the entire 18 years," he says, twirling a bottle of diet pop, his new drink of choice, through calloused fingers. "I came closest to using that I have."
Earle broke through in 1986 with the new country classic Guitar Town, paving the way for the alt-country sound of today. Copperhead Road, which went multi-platinum in Canada, cemented his status as the top gun in a new wave of outlaw country, but that hard living soon left him unable to write, incapable of recording and incarcerated for drug and weapon charges in 1994.
After undergoing treatment for heroin addiction, Earle found a new stride and spent two decades releasing 12 critically acclaimed albums. His struggles with drugs are a frequent source of inspiration. In his latest album, his songs look at a cross-section of torments plaguing the modern landscape. Written while on tour, Earle can move through moods and musical styles like an experienced truck driver working through his gearbox on an uneven stretch of highway.
"Pocket Full of Rain" is an upbeat, piano-led number that seems musically at odds with its difficult and personal subject.
"When I used to get really drunk," he says, "I would think I could speak Spanish. And I can’t. If you hang out in New Orleans too much you start to think you can play piano and that’s kind of what 'Pocket Full of Rain' is musically."
Earle spent an extended period in New Orleans working on the HBO series Treme, a reunion with David Simon, who cast Earle in The Wire to play a recovering heroin addict who sponsors other recovering addicts. It was art imitating life. Earle says regular meetings — three a week when he's at home in New York — and constant contact with his sponsor are what keep him clean.
"I had a lot of shit come down and I felt sorry for myself enough to use, but I didn’t. So I have proof positive in my life that this shit works. Once I recovered from it and sat there with the bullet ringing in my ear I wrote 'Pocket Full of Rain.'"
But the album is more about the troubles of the modern world than his own. Rolling through all corners of America on his tour bus, Earle saw something that reminded him of America's lowest point, the Great Depression.
Earle says that he and other songwriters are doing a job that was invented by Bob Dylan, which is bringing the reporter-as-songwriter style Woody Guthrie practiced during those years into the modern world.
"All of us have written songs in musical styles that have a connection to the '30s and the Depression," he says. "And even nowadays, the younger kids are doing it. There’s a fashion trend that’s about the '30s.... A friend of my wife’s said playing the kind of music we play is kind of like being a civil war re-enactor. And it is. But none of us, including Bob, ever witnessed hard times like what Woody was writing about first hand. Until now."
Although he's always been credited as a pioneer, Earle sees himself as squarely entrenched in that roots music songwriter tradition. It's a tradition that's seeing a strong resurgence, which is good news for Earle. He names Mumford & Sons as an example.
In fact, for all his blue collar ballads and roadhouse stompers, Earle admits these days his audience is more Harvard than Harley.
"As much as I’d like to think and as much as people mistakenly think my audience is blue collar people in the heart of America, my audience is basically, in the States, an NPR audience," he says. "I play college towns in the summer because that's who comes to see me."
Earle's recent work is sometimes criticized for being too political, using a Pete Seeger-brand hammer to pound home a point. On the new album, he steps into the worn shoes of a homeless person to make a point about empathy in the song "Invisible." He sits next to a man in the parking lot of a Walmart, plotting its destruction in "Burnin' It Down." If people think this isn't the stuff of songcraft, Earle isn't having it.
"There are some people who want to believe that politics are off limits in art or are off limits in pop culture," he says. "And I just didn’t grow up in a time when they were. My younger audience all ... come directly from the political stuff. I’d be cutting a pretty substantial part of my base off if I stopped writing political songs."
But for all his musical pamphleteering, it's Earle's ability to share a personal connection that allows him to thrive. He even managed to work that effect on the great Johnny Cash.
"Johnny Cash came all the way across the room to introduce himself, as if Johnny Cash needs to introduce himself," Earle says. "'Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.' That’s what he said. So your heart kind of stops, but he wanted to talk about 'Little Rock 'n' Roller.' It’s about travelling around missing your kids when you’re on the road. That’s what we had in common. He gravitated toward that song because he’d had that experience, but I’ve also had truck drivers talk to me about that experience. I had a conversation with a truck driver once and he didn’t even realize that it was about what I do for a living. I think he thought it was a truck driver song. And it could be, and I’m OK with that. That’s what the job is."
That paternal heartache returns for the most emotionally raw moment on The Low Highway, the final track, "Remember Me." It's a song for his young son, John Henry, whom Earle feels he may not get the chance to see grow up.
"I started having kids again in my mid-'50s," he says. "I’m one of four guys that dropped out of high school at the same time of the guys that I hung out with in San Antonio.... We were the smart guys who dropped out of school. We hung out together and kept track of each other and everybody’s gone but me. And I’m not that old, I’m only 58. Heart attack got one of them, cancer two of them. So I’m losing people and you have a child at my age he could grow up and not know who I am. If something happened today, he probably wouldn’t remember who I was. He’s only three. So it’s another song I had to write in self-defense."
That song shows how the man who wrote "Guitar Town," "Copperhead Road," "Hillbilly Highway," "Telephone Road," "Somewhere" and more can find new takes on familiar material for another album with pavement in the title.
"I didn’t think I was going to be doing what I was doing when I wrote ‘Little Rock 'n' Roller’ again," Earle says. "My middle son is probably going to develop a complex because he never got a song. But I’m out there by myself again and it’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s even harder now than it was when I wrote ‘Little Rock 'n' Roller’ because when I wrote ‘Little Rock 'n' Roller’ I could get high. I had the choice to get high if I wanted to. And now it’s not a choice that I have."
Steve Earle’s The Low Highway: full album stream
CBC Music's alternative country stream
Steve Earle's homepage
CBC Music's country classics stream
New West Records
From Willie Nelson to Hank Williams Jr: charting Nashville's political spectrum
on Apr 22, 2013