Steve Earle has come full circle, back to the beginning. In the past three decades, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter has issued consistently strong recordings, published a critically acclaimed novel and short story collection, and even tried his hand at acting. And that’s just a short list of his myriad achievements. Along the way, Earle’s found recovery from a drug addiction that nearly destroyed him and staked out his place in the frontlines of contemporary political activism. While he’s been labeled everything from folk to alt-country to Americana, Earle has thrown a curveball directly into those categories with his 16th release, the blues-driven Terraplane.
In the 11-song collection, Earle and his longtime band The Dukes tear through a set of tunes that run the gamut from the finger-picked-stroll of “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” to the roadhouse-groove of “Acquainted with the Wind.” Even in the context of Earle’s estimable body of work, Terraplane is a strong album and in some ways is a vehicle for the now-60-year-old to honor his roots as a teenaged Texas blues fan and musician in San Antonio. Unsurprisingly, Earle’s skills at songcrafting take what could be viewed as a predictable, halted form — the blues — and give it new legs.
In the last few years, Earle has experienced a few personal hardships. His son John Henry was diagnosed with autism and his marriage to Allison Moorer folded (Earle asked that we not talk about the divorce; I readily complied.) But there’ve also been some creative wins: Upon its release, Terraplane hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart and, this year, Earle plans to complete his long-awaited memoir, I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye.
Folio Weekly spoke to Earle at a tour stop in Houston, where he talked about his personal history with the blues, the art of vulnerability, and hitting a milestone in his recovery.
What compelled you to make this straight-up, gut-bucket blues album?
Part of it is what was going on in my life and part of it is that it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Part of the reason for it happening now is from what’s going on in my life and also having the band that could do it. You know, the standard is probably really high for me because I’m from Texas. I know Jimmie Vaughn, I knew Stevie [Ray Vaughn], I knew Johnny Winter, I know Charlie Musslewhite, you know? And I’m going to run into these guys. [Laughs.] So it’s a little intimidating.
Growing up in Texas, did you first become aware of the blues through ’60s rock bands or did you get it right from the source?
It was both, really. Because of my age, I backtrack to Sun Records. I was a big Elvis fan when I was a little kid. The first things I can remember hearing were those RCA Elvis records. They weren’t current, but I heard “Return to Sender” and stuff like that. But I heard the Sun stuff backtracking from Creedence Clearwater Revival. And I heard a lot of Chuck Berry and The Beatles. You know, I heard “Roll Over Beethoven” by The Beatles before I heard it by Chuck Berry. But in Texas, I was in a blues band before I met Townes Van Zandt and saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the same room, just because I’d been to the Southside of San Antonio from the Northside. The Northside kids were into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But by the time I was in the eighth grade, I’d moved to the Southside and listened to Hendrix and Cream. And I’d heard a lot of country music. I knew that some of it was better than others and was even interested in some of it. I even wore cowboy boots. [Laughs.] But when I moved to the Southside, my hair was longer than everybody else’s since they were kind of stuck in the ’50s there. But it was one of those things; it was just a throwback, ’50s, middle class neighborhood. But I found this one group of kids that weren’t listening to country music, this little group of nerds [laughs] that had started a blues band. There was this kid Danny Cowan who was a year older than me and was a really good blues guitarist. We were all 13 or 14; the oldest kid was almost 15. It was a weird little group, but we were trying to play some pretty real stuff. I think a lot of who I am comes from having been involved in that. I owe those guys a lot.
So when was this?
This was 1968, so we were listening to Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Electric Flag, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, and the first Johnny Winter album. And we were backtracking all of this stuff from white blues artists. And rock albums, too, like that first Led Zeppelin album. That, to us, seemed like a blues record and it kind of was, albeit a really loud one. [Laughs.]
The song “You’re the Best Lover that I Ever Had” has a Mance Lipscomb feel and you have that Freddie King-shuffle on “The Usual Time.” When you wrote those tunes, were you mindful of a specific artist? Not in the sense of aping them, but rather as a way to pay direct tribute?
Well, look, the one conscious decision was that I did try to backtrack. I learned about John Lee Hooker from Canned Heat. Man, I love Canned Heat — two great harp players. Plus Al Wilson, in addition to being a great harp player, was a great bottleneck slide player.
On this new record, some of the guitar tones almost touch on Texas psychedelic rock bands like The Moving Sidewalks and the 13th Floor Elevators.
There is that kind of psychedelic element on the record. When I was a kid, I saw The Moving Sidewalks and the 13th Floor Elevators. I saw Billy Gibbons [Moving Sidewalks and ZZ Top founding member] at this David Byrne tribute at Carnegie Hall we did recently, and we were talking and I asked him something I’ve been meaning to ask him for years but it never came up. But because of this new record, I finally did. For years, there’d been a rumor that the Elevators and The Moving Sidewalks all lived in the same house — and he told me that was true. He confirmed that. So that explains a lot [laughs] about the music I listened to when I was growing up.
The new tune, “Better Off Alone,” is a pretty unflinching song. The mood is just relentless. Even though you’ve been writing for decades, is it still hard to create from that type of vulnerability?
You know, it’s really not. It’s evidently easier for me than for some people. It’s not easy. But I can do it. I’m capable of doing it and trained myself to do it a long time ago. I do it and it does work. If you get to that point with it and are that open about it, people will relate to it. Because they don’t give a fuck about what I feel and what I think. They give a fuck about what they have in common with me and how I think. This job’s about empathy and letting people know that they’re not alone. And if you’re willing to give it up a little bit as an artist, whether it’s the way you sing, or write, or paint, the easier it’s going to be to find an audience.
You’re quite open about your life as a recovering addict and, last year, you picked up 20 years clean. Congratulations. That’s a pretty big deal.
Thanks. Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal for me.
What do you think has been crucial to your staying clean and in recovery for this long?
Going to meetings, talking to my sponsor, and sponsoring other people. I’ve probably had the hardest time in recovery in the last couple of years. Quite honestly, since I did the stuff that was suggested to me, it was pretty easy to stay clean for the first 17 years. But in the last few years, I was going through this divorce, my son was diagnosed with autism … you know, a lot of stuff happened. So I really needed the program. But the good news is that it works and what really helped was my sponsees. If I’m sponsoring people, then I have to keep working steps and that’s how it works. That’s how it started: with two guys trying to help one other guy.