Musician, actor, writer -- Steve Earle enjoys doing it all
Steve Earle is a busy man.
The veteran country rocker just released a new full-length record, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" (New West Records). Later this month, his debut novel of the same name will arrive in bookstores. He's a regular cast member on HBO's acclaimed drama "Treme." And he's just started work on a play.
Oh yeah: He's also about to hit the road on a national tour that will make a stop in Chicago later this summer.
"I think you need to keep working hard these days," Earle said in a phone interview. "There isn't much left to the music business anymore, so you have to do almost everything yourself if you want to stay out there. And I'm the kind of person who likes to take on new challenges, anyway."
Earle's new record, his first collection of all-original material since 2007's "Washington Square Serenade," explores themes of mortality, faith and politics in a series of low-key, rootsy songs expertly delineated by producer T-Bone Burnett.
The music shimmers with bluegrass, blues and even Celtic folk accents. Acoustic guitar is the instrument of choice here, but drums, electric guitar, fiddle and harmonica keep the sonic palette varied.
Earle said the death of his father three years ago played a large part in the songs on "Alive," though he wasn't conscious of that during the writing process.
"I didn't realize what the album was about for a long time," he said. "It wasn't until I had the songs together and sequenced them that I noticed how they all deal with death in one way or another."
Which doesn't make the album grim or depressing. The song "Waitin' on the Sky" opens the album with a joyous shuffle, and even the apocalyptic "Meet Me in the Alleyway," with its noirish harmonica and bluesy stomp, has a cocky snarl at its heart.
"I don't think I wrote any of these songs from a grim place," he said. "My dad was really miserable at the end, and I'm an old hippie, so I think I looked at his passing as something more than just this horrible loss. These songs view death in a more matter-of-fact way, as a part of life we all have to go through."
Earle said he enjoyed ceding the producing duties on the album to Burnett, who recently won a Grammy for his production on the "Crazy Heart" film soundtrack.
"He's just so ... good," Earle said. "I particularly like what he did with my singing. There's a real intimate sound to the record, like I'm right in the listener's ear."
The title of the new record comes from a Hank Williams song, and it's also the title of Earle's debut novel, which comes out May 12 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The novel is about a Texas doctor in the early 1960s who's haunted by Williams' ghost.
"I was working on both projects at the same time for awhile," Earle said. "I'd write prose for hours, and then when I turned to the songs I really tried to push the poetics of it, because I was already flexing literary muscles."
Earle said he's looking forward to his upcoming tour, which includes at stop at the Vic Theatre in Chicago on July 19. Earle will be performing with his old band, the Dukes. Tickets for that show are on sale now.
Earle is in his mid 50s, and his life until now has been anything but quiet. (A drug problem led to a short stint in prison during the early 1990s.) But he said he feels no lack of energy for all the projects he's involved in.
"I think living in New York helps," said Earle, who lived in Chicago for a short time while teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music. "There's just so much going on here to keep me motivated -- like theater, for instance. I mean, one of the reasons I moved to New York was so I could breathe the same air as Tony Kushner.
"But I'm lucky in that the different things I do kind of help each other out. I think I'm a better performer onstage because of that acting I do on 'Treme,' for instance. And I think my performing has in turn helped my acting. I try to tie everything together as much as I can."
Steve EarleNew album: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," available now.
Tour: Tickets on sale for show on July 19 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield, Chicago. $31. Go to jamusa.com.