By John J. Moser, The Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Steve Earle is something of a Renaissance man. Or maybe a workaholic.
After nearly a year of touring with a band for his acclaimed, successful album “The Low Highway,” Earle now is working on his third book, just finished a movie and wrapped up his role on a hit HBO TV series.
Now he’s reinventing himself as one half of an acoustic guitar duo with Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. The pair started a tour Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
In a phone call last week from New York City, where he lives, Earle says he expects the pair will play his songs, such the 1988 Top 10 hit “Copperhead Road,” and Colvin’s chart-topping 1997 song “Sunny Came Home.”
“And, knowing her, probably some covers that nobody expects,” Earle says. “She’s pretty famous for that.”
“I work a lot,” Earle says. “I play in a lot of formats. This summer I’m doing dates with Colvin, I’m doing solo shows, I’m doing dates with (his band) The Dukes,” and with a bluegrass version called the Bluegrass Dukes. “I’m in between record cycles and I do all kinds of stuff in between record cycles.”
It will be the first time Earle has toured with Colvin, whom he says he met in the late 1980s — after his first album, the gold, country-chart-topping “Guitar Town,” was released in 1986, and before Colvin’s 1989 debut “Steady On.”
“We’re kind of the same graduating class,” Earle says with a laugh.
Earle says he started out listening to “people who were really killer solo performers,” such as Loudon Wainwight III, Steve Goodman and his mentor, Townes Van Zandt. He puts Colvin in the same class. “Shawn’s that good. She’s one of the best solo performers I’ve ever seen, and that’s something I value a lot.”
Earle has been on the road since “The Low Highway” was released in April. The disc is a stinging look at the struggles of contemporary America — both economically, as on “21st Century Blues,” and personally, as on “Remember Me,” a song he wrote as an aging father (Earle is 59) to his 4-year-old son, who is autistic.
The disc hit Top 40, giving it one of Earle’s best chart positions since his late 1980s heyday, and its song “Invisible” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song.
“I was touring when I wrote (the album), so I’m writing all these songs looking out the window of a tour bus,” he says. “I travel a lot, and what I’m seeing is something different from what I was seeing two years ago. And it wasn’t necessarily positive.
“All of us who do this job that I do have these roots in the Depression. It goes back to Bob Dylan kind of becoming Woody Guthrie for 30 seconds as he was becoming Bob Dylan, and so we all have this connection to it. But none of us, including Bob, ever witnessed that first-hand.
“But now, we are witnessing it first-hand. I realized that what I was seeing was an America a lot closer to what Woody Guthrie saw. These are really, really genuinely tough times that have lasted a long time. I don’t know what the difference between a depression and a recession is when it goes on for this long.”
“Low Highway” wasn’t the only music Earle released last year. Shout! Factory Records in June released “Steve Earle: The Warner Brother Years,” a five-disc box set of his 1990s creative burst after overcoming heroin addiction and a related prison sentence that stopped his touring for three years.
“Shout Factory contacted us and said they had a chance to option the material,” he says. “A lot of the major labels are leasing out material to the smaller labels that want to put them out, and we were … given some control and we tried to come up with something to make it kind of special.”
Earle says the gem among the discs is a live recording from the first short tour he did with bluegrass master Peter Rowan, folk and country great Norman Blake and the late bass player Roy Huskey Jr. soon after his prison release. He says his recording partner Ray Kennedy found a digital cassette of one of the handful of shows.
“We came up with the first performance I did in Nashville in 1995 after I got out of jail,” Earle says. “It was very early in recovery for me and I didn’t know how I was going to do touring, so I was taking it kind of slow and easy. … Bill Monroe sat in and Emmylou Harris sat in and we discovered we had a really good, clean recording of that whole show.”
He says that disc soon will be released as a single album.
He also contributed a song to “Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War,” a collection released in November with tunes by Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and two-dozen other artists. In a duet with Dirk Powell, whom Earle says “may be the best old-time banjo player alive,” Earle paired two songs based on the same music — “Just Before the Battle, Mother / Farewell Mother.”
“I’m pretty proud of that recording actually,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite things I ever recorded.”
Last year also saw Earle wrap up his work as a character in the HBO series “Treme,” set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for which he also wrote music. The show was nominated for two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and in 2011 won the Peabody Award for distinguished service by television.
“‘Treme’ was a blast. That role was written for me and I managed to lose a little bit of weight since I don’t have to go to New Orleans every 10 days,” he says. “But I miss New Orleans a lot. I probably, if a lot of other things hadn’t happened in the last year or two, would have bought a place in New Orleans.”
He also had a starring role with Noah Wylie, Minka Kelly and Haley Joel Osment in the unreleased independent film “The World Made Straight,” based on a novel by Ron Rash about Appalachian drug dealers.
“I learned a lot from doing it,” Earle says of the film. “It was by far my biggest part in anything ever. I mean, I’m the bad guy and it was fun. … In the horrible spring weather in the mountains — like, pouring rain. Scenes had to be moved inside that were meant to be shot outside. Sitting in trailers that the electricity had gone off in, freezing your a– off, waiting on the set.
“And my last night, we shot all night and I had to be on a plane the next day and play someplace. And I was slightly mildewed by the time I got to there.”
Earle knows a thing or two about novels. His own, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” about a defrocked doctor and morphine addict, was published in 2011 as a companion to his album of the same name. He also wrote “Doghouse Roses,” a collection of short stories.
Earle says he’s now writing “a literary memoir.”
Earle continues to deal with obstacles in his life. In addition to his autistic son, he says he’s going through a divorce from singer Allison Moorer, his seventh wife, but he says the book will be “about recovery more than anything else.”
He says it includes segments on Van Zandt, whom Earle ran away from home at age 14 to follow, and “people that sort of helped me survive my bottom — the street and jail — who weren’t necessarily looking out for my interests, they were protecting a commodity. But without them I probably wouldn’t be here.”
“And then the third part’s about my grandfather, who started most of the 12-step meetings in Northeast Texas,” he says.
Earle says he’s also writing for a blues album, likely to be released in 2015.
“I thought I was going to record this summer early, but I’ll probably record more like in the fall, so there won’t be a record this year,” he says, “because I’m going to concentrate on the book.
“And I’m touring,” he says. “This deal with Shawn, I’ve been looking forward to a long time. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think it’s going to be cool.”
Photo: CME Staff via Flickr