Steve Earle, the singer-songwriter-actor-playwright, whose new record, Guy, drops this month, talks being sober, getting married seven times, and partying with Frida Khalo.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Guy Clark told me, “Songs aren’t finished until you play them for people.” It took me a long time to really understand what he meant—it’s about being open to changing things even if you’re pretty happy with the way they are. If I hadn’t learned how to change, I’d be dead right now.
Who were your heroes growing up?
My uncle, who was five years older than me, was the first hero I ever knew, because he played guitar. One day, he called me and told me, “Watch The Ed Sullivan Show tonight,” and that’s why I saw the Beatles when I was 8. That changed everything. It was all music from that point on.
What advice would you give your younger self?
You don’t have to marry everybody you go to bed with.
You’ve been married seven times. What have you learned along the way?
My therapist says that I intentionally seek out relationships with women I couldn’t possibly succeed with because I really want to be alone. I hope that’s not true because it sounds like a lot of fucking work.
How should a man handle getting older?
Men are delusional. Like, men don’t need skinny mirrors. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see the old guy with the beard; I see me when I was 20. Most of what I do every day is me combating age.
What role should vanity play in a man’s life?
I can’t say vanity doesn’t enter into the decisions I make about my life. My weight goes up and down. The reason for maintaining it is my health, but you know what? What causes me to lose the weight is so that really cool Varvatos jacket that I bought doesn’t get too tight. Then I’ll get my ass in the gym and not eat some things.
How should a man handle criticism?
I don’t read reviews when it comes to music. I’m not going to get anything from that. But in areas where I’m not so fucking sure of myself, like film and television and theater—I think it’s good for you. It puts me in my place, which I think is really healthy.
Who has been the main influence on your life?
Bill Wilson, who founded the Twelve Step program.
What human trait do you most deplore?
Not being real, not being genuine.
And what human trait do you most admire?
Conviction. And dedication to service.
How should a man handle regret?
Make amends where you can—except when it will hurt somebody else. Once you’ve done that, let God have it. But letting it go is not this thing that you do once and then it’s done. Sometimes you have to do it over and over again, because regret will eat you alive. The truth is there’s nothing you can do about what you’ve already done. All you can do is wake up in the morning and do better.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Tim Hardin. He wrote “If I Were a Carpenter”—he’s a badass. Frida Kahlo and Joni Mitchell. Allen Ginsberg. That would be a hell of a conversation.
What adventure most changed your life?
When I got out of jail, they released me at midnight. They handed me my clothes, which still stunk from the night I went in four months earlier, and there was a $20 bill that I missed. I could have hooked up in 15 minutes. But instead I called a friend, and he drove me home and came back the next day and took me to my first meeting. That’s the beginning of the adventure that changed my life the most.
How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?
As an artist.
As told to Larry Kanter
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