Thursday, September 27, 2012
In 1987, singer-songwriter Steve Earle was nominated for Best Country Male Vocalist and Best Country Song (he’s received 14 Grammys nods and won three). On the awards stage he and his band played his “Guitar Town,” a taste of honky-tonk pop with country guitar reverb, vocal twang and an infectious hook.
But calling Earle, 57, a country musician would be inaccurate, and would betray his strength: He consistently veers, zigzags and loops miles away from the country genre and crafts songs that have well-established musicians lining up at his door. He’s written tunes for everyone from Joan Baez and Levon Helm to The Pretenders and Emmylou Harris. The punk outfit Supersuckers backed him on his 1997 roots rock LP El Corazón, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello appears on Townes, his 2009 tribute to Townes Van Zandt, and Earle even provided banjo on Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Taneytown” – a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a young, developmentally disabled black guy living in the South – best represents the creative twists and turns Earle brings to his songwriting. On the surface, the tune compares to late-’60s Neil Young and mid-’70s Bruce Springsteen, but really, there’s nothing else like it. Earle’s simple prose can pierce through skin, travel inside your body and engage your heart, mind and soul simultaneously.
“Long way down the county road,” he sings. “Stars were bright/ The moon was low.”
In addition to being a prolific singer-songwriter, he’s a novelist, record producer, playwright, actor and dedicated anti-death-penalty activist.
“Writing plays [is most difficult],” Earle says. “It’s writing in 3-D so there are a lot of balls to keep in the air.”
The songs continue to come. The title of his most recent release I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive – also the name of his recent novel – is a reference to the last song Hank Williams wrote. Earle says the T-Bone Burnett-produced album “is about mortality in one way or another” and was inspired by his father’s 2007 death. The title-track version of the Williams’ tune marries the song’s original vocal twang with stripped-down Lonestar State blues. And Earle’s voice relays a purity and earnestness strong enough to summon his dad’s spirit. That spiritually seeps through much of his work. And his life depends on it.
“I’m a 12-step guy,” he says. “I need to believe that there is a power greater than myself in order to survive.”
Earle says he never plans solo-acoustic shows, so Wednesday at the Henry Miller Library will be just as much a surprise for him as it will be for attendees. “Set lists take the fun out of it,” he says.
As a respected writer himself, he appreciates the doors that Miller knocked down for wordsmiths.
“Writing about sex is the hardest thing,” he says. “Miller broke the ice for everyone that followed.”
STEVE EARLE performs at 8pm (gates at 6:30pm) Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Henry Miller Memorial Library, a quarter mile south of Nepenthe Restaurant on Highway 1, Big Sur. $82. 667-2574, www.henrymiller.org.