Steve Earle produces songs, short stories, novels, and plays the way most people breathe. The latest album by the alt-folk hero, 'The Low Highway,' is his 15th, but he's also got a second book of fiction in the works, as well as a memoir. His is the life well mythologized: the formative years under the dark wing of Townes Van Zandt, the lost years of drink and dope, the five ex-wives, the jail time, the rehab. At this point, the Texas singer-songwriter is even playing thinly veiled versions of himself on TV, most recently as a New Orleans street musician named Harley in the HBO series 'Treme'. During our conversation, Earle, 58, was occasionally interrupted by his latest folk creation: his three-year-old son, John Henry.
The title song of your new record sounds like the flip side of "This Land Is Your Land" – the American landscape but from a desolate point of view.
"This Land Is Your Land" is pretty dark, too, if you listen to the whole song and not just the parts we were taught at camp. The [origin] of this record is, I was in the middle of a tour. I continued writing about what I saw out the window, the state of things in America. It dawned on me that I'm part of a job description that Bob Dylan kind of invented in Woody [Guthrie]'s image, making music based on the Depression and even dressing like it's the fucking Depression. But we're seeing times that hard now. Instead of emulating people who write about the Depression, I ended up writing about the Depression, which I didn't think was going to happen in my lifetime.
On "Burnin' It Down," you write about the temptation to torch a Walmart. When's the last time you were in a Walmart?
The year that my last girlfriend ran off with the kids' soccer coach. She took the Christmas tree with her, decided it was hers. So I got a Christmas tree at Walmart. That was 11 years ago.
Presumably, that's a character contemplating arson and not you?
It is. That character is the spirit of everybody who grew up in a small town but doesn't recognize it anymore because there is no hardware store, no mom-and-pop gas station, no local diner where they know the last three generations that worked there. Look, it comes down to — we're going to have to make a choice between jobs and cheaper flatscreen TVs. I love big-ass flatscreen TVs as much as anybody. I famously have five in my house in Woodstock – so I can watch baseball, fuck it. But at some point you have to make choices.
You've mined your biography in song and story for years. Does Steve Earle have revelations left for a memoir?
The memoir is based as much on the monologues I've used at my shows as it is anything else. I just think it's another medium for the same thing. For a long time, I didn't write a memoir on purpose, because it just seemed like fucking myself out of a lot of song material. The reason I finally did it was money. My son was diagnosed with autism. He's OK, he makes eye contact, but he doesn't talk. He needs eight hours a day of very intensive school, and you wouldn't even believe me if I told you how much it costs. It's the first artistic decision I've ever made based on money in my entire life. And I can say that. I don't think I'm going to go to hell for it.
The song "Remember Me" is addressed to your youngest son. You raised two other sons during famously terrible periods in your personal life. How is fatherhood different this time around?
Trust me, it's not lost on me that [older sons, Justin and Ian] are seeing me be a way better father than I was to them. They know it. They see it. It's probably an issue to some extent, but they both talk to me. "Remember Me" exists because if I died tomorrow, which could happen, [John Henry] won't remember me, so I better write that fucking song.
Last we spoke, you owned more than 120 guitars. What's the count now?
Well over 200. I built a guitar room, so I kept buying guitars. But I've got some cool shit. I played electric guitar on this record for the first time, because I bought a 1955 Telecaster and a 1955 Les Paul custom, both made the year I was born. You know, I had a Les Paul custom, I wanted to fucking play it, so that's where "Calico County" came from. That's always my excuse for buying guitars anyway. There's different songs on all of them, I'm convinced of it.