On his way from playing folk songs in San Antonio coffeehouses as a teenager to his fourteenth Grammy nomination forty-three years later, in 2012, singer-songwriter Steve Earle gained a reputation as a Renaissance man, outspoken iconoclast, and masterful storyteller. On December 3, before a roomful of fans in Elebash Recital Hall, the three-time Grammy Award winner spoke openly with Bill Kelly, president of the Graduate Center, CUNY, about his run-ins with the law, struggles with substance abuse, and staunch position against the death penalty, among other topics. The discussion was part of the GC’s popular “Extraordinary Lives” series of conversations, highlighting the work of public figures, like Earle, who have played a major role in shaping the fields in which they work.
Speaking of his younger years, Earle sang the praises of many people in his life who helped nurture his love of music. Among these were the uncle who gave him his first guitar at age eleven, the high school drama teacher who introduced him to the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, and, most notably, the late folk-rock “cult musician” Townes Van Zandt, with whom Earle first crossed paths as an impressionable seventeen-year-old.
“Townes had a mathematical way of laying out verse,” Earle recollected. “He gave me a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary, and we’d both write songs, and try to outdo one another.”
But Earle was almost undone when he also found himself emulating Van Zandt’s self-destructive habits. “I drank whatever he and [singer-songwriter] Guy Clark were drinking, because it was free,” he reminisced. “Compared to Townes, I figured I was fine.”
That is, until Earle realized he wasn’t.
In 1994, after an arrest on charges of narcotics possession, Earle was given the option of serving his sentence in a rehab center. “At first I went to treatment just to get out of jail,” he admitted. “But something happened to me during those thirty-nine days. I decided that I didn’t want to die.”
Now on the wagon for twenty years and counting, Earle has redirected some of his earlier zeal for drugs into social activism. Among his many causes—from autism research and farm aid to opposition to Walmart—his disdain for capital punishment “remains my main area of activism and probably always will be,” he said.
In addition to supporting such groups as the Abolitionist Action Committee and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Earle also airs his views through his songs and other writings. One of his anti-capital- punishment ballads, for example, “Ellis Unit One,” appears on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. Another, “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” speculates on the thoughts murderer Jonathan Wayne Nobles might have had right before his 1998 execution.
“Nobles changed a lot in jail,” lamented Earle, who attended Nobles’s execution after corresponding with the death row inmate for many years. “No one who knew him believes that they executed the same person that he was when he was sentenced.”
In recent years, Earle has expanded his repertoire of creative pursuits to include playwriting and fiction. Among his literary works are a book of short stories, Doghouse Roses; Karla, a play about the 1998 execution of the first woman sentenced to death in Texas since the Civil War; and, most recently, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, a novel that shares its title with Earle’s fourteenth studio album, both released in the spring of 2011.
Other than the title, Kelly wondered, “What links the novel with the album?” “Both are about mortality and death,” came the immediate reply. It is a topic much on his mind, Earle added, since his own father passed away in late 2008.
While Earle’s struggles remain very real—caring for an autistic two-year-old son not least among them—he is also well aware of his blessings. “I am lucky to have had good teachers and to make a living the way I do,” he averred, “and to have been able to see the world.”