Twenty years back, many of us figured Steve Earle for a goner.
He was so plainly burning through all of it -- his talent and initial promise as a songwriter, performer and record-maker; his many marriages; and his personal resolve, which was crumbling beneath the weight of a monumental drug problem that would land him first on skid row, and ultimately, in prison. Earle had taken the whole "Outlaw Country" thing -- a mold cast by the likes of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, among others -- a few miles too far. He appeared to be a dead man walking.
Today, he's happily married -- his seventh headlong dive toward nuptial grace -- clean and sober, and in full possession of his estimable gifts once again. Most folks who go as low as Earle did don't live long enough to find redemption. That Earle has managed to make it out of the long, dark tunnel he drove into at 100 mph two decades back is a testament to his legendary bullheadedness.
This week, Earle is releasing a wonderful new album, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." (New West Records) That's great news and all, but apparently, getting together with producer T Bone Burnett to track yet another classic in what is now a lengthy, uninterrupted flow is not enough for Steve Earle.
He's also about to release his first novel, a tome that shares its title with the new album.
Rock musicians who write face a quandary. Writing great lyrics does not automatically reserve one a spot at the novelist's table. Lyric-writing, after all, is its own art form, one where poetry meets meter in the lambent and often forgiving glow of vocal phrasing, melody and passionate delivery. Prose can only suggest melody; it can't deliver it outright. But recent efforts by the likes of Nick Cave ("The Death of Bunny Monroe") and John Wesley Harding ("Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer," written under his birth name, Wesley Stace) have suggested that bridging the gap between pop and literature is not impossible.
Earle, however, has both of the above-mentioned pop auteurs-turned-authors beat. His "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a minor masterpiece, a blood, guts and poetic verite tale of life after the fall from grace.
The novel introduces us to Doc, a physician who may or may not have given Hank Williams the shot of morphine that killed him on New Year's Day in 1953, when the country icon was a mere 29 years of age.
Doc's fall from grace commenced with Williams' death. He would soon lose his license to practice medicine, his family connections and, to a certain degree, his mind. Now a seemingly hopeless morphine addict, he lives in a decrepit boardinghouse in a depressed south-of-the-tracks area of San Antonio. There, Doc gets by on sparse income derived from performing illegal abortions, removing bullets and patching up the results of barroom brawls for his fellow junkies, illegal immigrants, prostitutes and other social outcasts. It ain't a pretty life.
Through all of this, Doc is haunted by Williams' ghost; the country singer's shade follows Doc around, and is at his most visceral and tangible to the disgraced Doctor whenever his several-times-a-day morphine fix kicks in.
Earle's Doc comes off like a tortured cross between novelist Cormac McCarthy's "Suttree" and the real-life Townes Van Zandt, a friend and mentor of Earle who never quite found the redemption ultimately offered to Doc. Due to the economy and precision of Earle's prose, the novel is convincing in its blend of gritty realism and a heady -- if implied rather than stated -- poetry.
The Burnett-produced audio counterpart is thematically linked to the novel, but it is not a track-by-track-mark recounting of Doc's life. Rather, it deals with the same theme -- the fall from grace, and the subsequent race to find redemption before the clock runs out. This is tough stuff, but Earle handles it all with a sure hand and, despite the often sordid realism, a narrative viewpoint suffused with compassion. Burnett's job was to track the grainy black-and-white audio image of the folk-country ensemble live in the studio. The musicians, it seems, mixed themselves in real-time, and they did so deftly -- Earle's gorgeously gruff vocals and fat-free lyric-stories sit comfortably in the center of it all, right where they belong.
Believability has always been a key factor in Earle's artistic successes. When he is at his best, he is impossible to doubt. The fact that he knows Doc so well -- hell, he's lived the same life, has been there, done that, and kept doing it well past the point of breaking -- lends a narrative verisimilitude to his debut novel. That same narrative thrust carries his songwriting toward the state of grace Doc so doggedly, if subconsciously, pursues throughout the book.
Earle has been given what would seem to be countless second chances in his life, both artistically and personally. It's a blessing -- for himself, of course, but also for us -- that he hasn't wasted them.