Steve Earle is out of breath, but not from pontificating on all manner of topics from politics to Kings of Leon (an admitted favorite). The 56-year-old native Texan, former Houstonian, singer-songwriter, satellite radio host, actor (HBO's Treme) and now author is rambling between backstage and his tour bus at Colorado's Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Earle and his band the Dukes (and Duchesses) — featuring wife Allison Moorer, ex-Houstonian Chris Masterson and his wife, Eleanor Whitmore — are booked for the next day. "It's 9,000 feet here," he gasps.
Coming on the heels of 2009's Grammy-winning Townes Van Zandt tribute album, Townes — recorded in Earle's New York apartment with SugarHill studios engineer Steve Christensen — his latest project is the starkly personal I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West), the T-Bone Burnett-produced album released this spring alongside a companion novel of the same name.
Earle is a great interview. He admits he goes out of his way to do in-stores at Cactus Music, even without booking another show in the Houston area, in part because "Cactus is owned by the guy who owns my record label [George Fontaine], for one thing."
Asked if he thinks he'll ever do another rock and roll record à la 1986's Guitar Town and '88's Copperhead Road, he winds up: "You know what? No matter what kind of record I make, somebody else is going to want me to make the record I made..." before the reception breaks up.
No matter. Earle had quite a few other things to say, too.
Chatter: How cathartic was doing the Townes album for you?
Steve Earle: It was a big deal. I knew I was going to do it one of these days, and finally doing it was more than I even thought it was. It was a more emotional experience than even I expected.
C: What effect did doing that album have on the new one?
SE: I think it gave me a lot more time to write it. I wrote "God Is God" and "I Am a Wanderer" for the Joan Baez record [2008's Day After Tomorrow], and I wrote "Lonely Are the Free" for a film I was in called Leaves of Grass. I was working on the book the whole time, so that's what I was concentrating on. The songs that insisted on getting written got written. Once the Townes record was out, that was part of the purpose of it — to buy myself some time to finish the book.
C: Did you have some sort of ritual for writing the novel?
SE: Just get up in the morning and write. Get as much done before the phone starts ringing as possible.
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C: Do you get writer's block at all?
SE: I haven't in a long time. I don't think of it that way. I go through long periods where I don't write anything, but I think I trust myself to eventually write something. The closest thing to writer's block I ever had was the four and a half years my drug habit got so out of hand I didn't write anything.
C: I like the way you stick up for Houston musically on your show.
SE: I love Houston. There are people in Texas who go off on Houston, but I think they're pussies. It's the closest thing to a city in the state. It's where I first got out on my own and started playing my own music in front of people. It's where I met Townes, and look — ZZ Top is from Houston. Lightnin' Hopkins is from Houston.