A country singer with a Rip Van Winkle beard and a rap sheet, a Catholic priest and a writer sped around Louisville’s beltway in the clergyman’s BMW 325xi. The singer had just flown in from Newark and he and the priest, whose white clerical collar was undone, couldn’t stop catching up. The preacher asked about that old Baptist minister they both knew from around Nashville. “Still with us,” the singer replied. He’d officiated the singer’s most recent wedding (the only one of his seven marriage ceremonies that he was sober for). The writer sat in the back, scrunched alongside suitcases and a guitar case, nervously consuming a stimulant, fearful that he was going to blow his chance to interview the singer–an assignment he’d pitched and sold before okaying it with the subject.
(‘’)But that’s where this story’s similarities with something by Louisville’s most famous writer, Hunter S. Thompson, end. The stimulant was a now-watery iced latte. The singer, Steve Earle, was in town not for a decadent and depraved time at Churchill Downs (he’s been clean since 1994), but to receive an award at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And instead of blowing off the assignment and just chewing mescaline and turning in 2,500 words about that experience Fear and Loathing style, I actually did the interview. Steve Earle talks fast, which should be no surprise given the musician, actor, activist, author, poet and playwright’s productivity: in 20 minutes we covered Obama, “Pants on the Ground,” leaving Nashville for the Village, changing diapers and, of course, what Bubbles is up to these days.
Do you regret having voted for Obama? No. I believe in the electoral system up to a point. I’m not a Democrat. When people freak out and say, “He’s a socialist”? I’m a socialist. Trust me, he’s not. I know a socialist when I see one. All I got to do is look in the mirror. That being said, I’m a socialist without what I consider to be a viable socialist party in the United States. I’m not a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party. I’m not a member of any communist party or any socialist party. Our system is so rigged to work on for the two parties that it just seems like a waste of time to me. I still believe in lesser evilism to a certain extent, at least in electoral politics. I know people that don’t agree. I didn’t vote for Nader because I think Ralph Nader’s an asshole. He’s the only candidate, only presidential candidate that’s ever opposed the death penalty in my lifetime, in my voting lifetime.
The New York Times said that when you were a teenager, you thought it was “possible to create songs that might be ‘literature that you consume while driving in your car.’” Do you still think that’s possible and is there anybody right now that you think is putting out music that qualifies as literature? Absolutely. I think Joe Pug does. I think my son [Justin Townes Earle] does when he’s in his best form. Joe Pug’s this kid from Maryland originally, he lives in Chicago. Willy Mason does. There are people who still write like that. We’ve passed the point when singer/songwriters are in the mainstream of pop music I think. I think what I do now is like being what? Being a jazz musician or a bluegrass musician. It’s a much more hardcore career choice; a lot less money. You can make a good living, but there’s a lot less money. I came along in the ’80s, the music business was a lot different then.
Do you find it frustrating when somebody gets on American Idol and sings “Pants on the Ground” and all of a sudden, it’s this raging hit? I don’t watch American Idol. I don’t watch reality television at all. I’m trying to protect my intellect.
Fair enough. Yeah. I’m sorry. I don’t even think – I never think about it one way or the other. It doesn’t bother me. Pop music’s always had a lot of crap, and so has country music and I’ve never had anything to do with any of that anyway. I was just lucky enough to live in a time when I could use the infrastructure of pop music to distribute art and so, I did it. I’m still doing it to a certain extent just because I came from an era and I got my career started in a time when that was still true. Now, it’s different. My son goes out and plays gigs and goes out front and sells CDs after the gig. That’s the way it’s done now. It’s a whole different deal.
On your last tour you skipped Nashville. Was that intentional? We did play it finally. We finally went back and played. I have a hard time selling tickets in Nashville. I can’t play at the Ryman Auditorium. So, finding a venue – this show needed to be seated because it was so low. And so, the tour before we had played this place that now it’s like a clothing store layout. Now, it’s an Urban Outfitters. But, it’s just a warehouse. It’s just we couldn’t get enough nights at the Belcourt and make it work in the tour. And the Belcourt was really the only place for me to play. We did two nights at the Belcourt this last time.
In 2007′s Washington Square Serenade you were very happy and optimistic about New York. Do you still feel that way after living there for a couple of years? Yeah. I love it. I live there because I want to be around people that are more like me. I’m done living in the south.
Is that why you chose the Village then? Yeah. I’m living in the neighborhood I’ve always wanted to live in. I want us to be able to see a mixed race/same sex couple holding hands. It makes me feel safer, as white and heterosexual as I am.
That’s a thought, obviously, you had before moving there? Yeah. It was watching my father die in Tennessee. He grew up in Texas. He lived in Tennessee the last 20 years of his life and he had heart disease, and couldn’t get around and was… I’d like to think I’m going to spontaneously combust on a bus somewhere. But, I’ve learned that I’m not in control of those things. It may not happen. I could get my wings. I could have a stroke or a heart attack and not be able to travel like I used to. And then, when that happens, I had to ask myself did I want it to happen in Tennessee and the answer was no.
Did you feel better bringing a kid into the world in Greenwich Village now that you’re expecting? Absolutely. Private schools in Nashville exist so people don’t have to send their kids to school with black kids. That’s the only reason we have private schools there. I’ll send my kid to public school in Greenwich Village and I can send him to P.S. 41 which is where the Friends of Old Time Music concerts [folk, blues and bluegrass performances in the early 1960s] were held. If I want him to go to private school the Little Red School House is there. But, I believe in public school. I believe everybody’s got to stop deserting public school. Some people with money have to make a stand with their kids; unwind. That’s what I’m going to do. This is going to be a New York City kid.
You’re 55 tomorrow. How do you handle parenting, and being on the road and all that stuff? Well, I don’t know. I haven’t done it yet. This kid will just go with us and travel by bus. We drug two dogs all over North America. We can drag a kid.
Does Steve Earle change diapers? Yeah, absolutely. I’ve changed Justin’s diapers and I changed Ian’s diapers. I was around when they were little bitty. I left both of their mothers, but they were all out of diapers by the time I left. So, I didn’t miss any of that part.
Leaves of Grass [a comedic thriller directed by Tim Blake Nelson and staring Edward Norton in which Earle plays a drug dealer] is coming out this year sometime? My understanding is that it’s going to screen one more time than South by Southwest and then it will be released after that in whatever form it’s going to be released.
And you’re role is opposite of what you were doing on The Wire? Well, yeah. I’m the bad guy. But it is a comedy.
What was it like playing that? It was fun. It was a lot of fun. At one point, Tim Nelson got a little frustrated with me. My first scene was this big scene where I’m beating up Edward Norton and he goes, “Okay. We’ve hired a pacifist.” And it took a while to get me to be really genuinely violent.
What did you do to get yourself in that state? I’m not a good enough actor to – we just kept shooting it until it looked right.
Any more acting on the horizon? Yeah. I’m in Treme which is David Simon’s new show. The guys that produced The Wire started shooting it. I shot my first episode last week in New Orleans and I’m going back at the end of this tour.
What kind of character do you play? It requires almost as little acting as Walon did [the recovering drug addict Earle played in The Wire]. It’s another part of my life. I play the patriarch of nontraditional buskers on Royal Street, the non-jazz, nontraditional buskers that are sort of combined on Royal Street in the Quarter in New Orleans. The character is called Harley and is based on a character in one of my short stories. That’s where we took the name from.
How is I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive [a book Earle's been writing on and off for years about a doctor who supports his heroin habit by performing abortions] coming along? I’m almost done. I’ve got to finish the last chapter and then go back and fix a couple of things. I’m dealing with the problems of getting everybody on this one front porch for the grand finale.
Do you feel like there’s a deadline with the kid coming up that you want to get it done before that? Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I’m almost there. I’ve got to get it done anyway or I’m going to get sued. I’m actually in a position where I do have the money, I could give them their advance back for the first time in my life. But I don’t want to of course.
It’s been two years since The Wire finale. What do you think Bubbles is doing? [Andre Royo] called me the other day from New Orleans. He’s not in Treme, but I just left New Orleans, and Andre just happened to be in town and he called me. I think Bubbles made it. If you watched the whole thing, you have to think Bubbles made it. People make it. I made it. I mean, I have made it so far. I have 15 years September 13th. So people do make it.