Steve Earle says his midlife crisis took place when he was about 24



By Steve Newton

It’s pretty common for a recording artist to tout his latest work as his best ever. I’ve yet to hear one say, “Well, this new record’s okay, but it’s nothing like the one I did five years ago.” Sometimes you can tell whether a musician truly believes in the superiority of his recent work, though, and with Steve Earle there’s no question. The roots-rock troubadour from Tennessee is adamant that his last three records—including the current El Corazón—are his finest by far.

“I think that it’s supposed to work that way,” says Earle, on the phone from a tour stop in Birmingham, Alabama. “I think you do somethin’ for as long as I’ve done it, you’re supposed to get better and not worse. And I have a lot of energy to put into it these days. I don’t have a drug habit any more, and I work pretty much every day, so…”

Earle’s previous substance abuse is well-documented. He was a smack addict when he made his 1986 debut album, Guitar Town, and his drug problems continued through the late ’80s and early ’90s until he wound up in prison on heroin charges. After entering a prison rehab program, he was paroled in ’94, and the records he’s made since then—including the mostly acoustic, Grammy-nominated Train A-Comin’ and 1996’s I Feel Alright—have brought him more acclaim than ever. El Corazón—which is dedicated to his late mentor, Townes Van Zandt—is certainly a work worthy of Earle’s pride. But what’s his reaction when somebody says that Copperhead Road, his breakthrough disc of 1988, is their fave Steve Earle album, drugs or no drugs?

“Well, in the first place, very few people think that Copperhead Road’s my best work. It’s the record that sold the most so far of any record that I made, but I don’t know… In fact, you may be the first person that’s ever suggested that. You and a few rednecks.” Earle’s backwoodsy brand of music has been known to attract its share of good old boys and beer-guzzlin’ biker types, and with tunes like “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” and “Hillbilly Highway”, that’s no surprise. But Earle is far from your stereotypical redneck as far as his own political leanings go. He made his stance against capital punishment clear back in 1990 in the haunting “Billy Austin”, then again in ’95 with “Ellis Unit One”, from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Earle was on the road last month when the latest high-profile, state-sanctioned execution took the life of Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker.

“I was sitting there watching CNN when they turned her last appeal down,” says Earle with a sigh, “but it was a foregone conclusion that they were gonna execute her. It doesn’t upset me any more than any execution in Texas does. The issue has nothing to do with her being a woman, and has nothing to do with whether she’s guilty or not. I’m opposed to the death penalty, period, in any case.”

Earle doesn’t abide deliberate death-dealing in any form, whether it’s carried out via lethal injection in a southern prison or from the deck of an aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf. He writes a lot of topical tunes, and war sometimes enters into them, but he has yet to address the ongoing U.S.–Iraq crisis in song. He has strong feelings about the conflict, though.

“I probably am pretty out of line with most people from my country about that whole deal,” he confides, “because I thought it was bullshit the first time that we did it [attacked Iraq]. No matter what Saddam Hussein does or doesn’t do, going in and killing a bunch of innocent people to defend what’s basically a family-owned oil company—which is what Kuwait is, it’s not really a country—is criminal, as far as I’m concerned.”

Earle does offer some politically charged tunes on El Corazón—including the sombre opener, “Christmas in Washington”—but there are also folksy freewheelers like “I Still Carry You Around”, which he wrote just so he’d have something to play with the Del McCoury Band. Earle actually tried to get that family act—which he calls “the best bluegrass band in the world right now”—signed to his own E-Squared Records, but it stayed with its longtime label, Rounder. Earle plans to stay in close contact with the group, however. “My next record’s probably gonna be—well, not probably, it’s three-quarters of the way written—my next record’s gonna be a really, really hard-core bluegrass record with the Del McCoury Band.”

Along with the bluegrass, country, folk, and blues-rock stylings that colour the multihued El Corazón, Earle makes his first foray into urban grunge with “N.Y.C.”, in which he rocks wildly in the company of Seattle hillbilly boogiers the Supersuckers. Earle describes the song—which may raise the roof when he plays the Rage on Wednesday (March 11)—as “a midlife crisis set to music”.

“My midlife crisis took place when I was about 24,” he relates, “but I really didn’t think about it that much. I’ve always felt that I’d probably do my best work in my 40s, if I got that far, and when I looked up one day and I had survived my 30s, which I damn near didn’t—I do think I’m doin’ my best work. But there is that downside of anything. Somebody told me years ago that I’d better move to New York because it’s somethin’ young men do, and you won’t do it if you wait much longer. I don’t think that’s strictly true, but on my worst days I believe that to a certain extent, and I was probably somewhere in between those two attitudes when I wrote the song.”

On another of El Corazón’s liveliest numbers, “Here I Am”—which Earle describes as an intentionally arrogant, “state of me” song—he is joined by his 16-year-old son Justin on guitar. Earle says it’s too early to tell if Justin will follow in his musical footsteps, but he doesn’t believe that an entertainment career would make his son any more susceptible to the lure of drugs than a regular job would.

“I don’t think the two have anything to do with each other,” he stresses. “I mean, there’s absolutely no correlation between my drug habit and my fortunes in the music business. I would have been an addict if I’d been a carpenter.”

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