Steve Earle grapples with mortality in CD, novel

Associated Press Modified: May 23, 2011 at 9:30 am •  Published: May 23, 2011
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NEW YORK (AP) — It wasn't part of any master plan that Steve Earle released a CD and his debut novel virtually simultaneously and with the same titles, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

The novel, named for the last single released by Hank Williams before his death, took eight years of work and features Williams' ghost as a main character. There's no obvious link to the subject matter of his new songs, but when Earle listened to them he realized the idea of mortality ran through both projects.

Earle's father died three years ago at a time Steve was writing songs for an album he produced for Joan Baez. Two of those songs, "God is God" and "I Am a Wanderer," Earle also recorded for his own disc.

"It can't help but seep into everything," he said. "It's a big event in everyone's life. When the generation before you is gone, you're next."

Earle and three friends all dropped out of high school at the same time. Two of them are dead. The third has cancer. And Earle, at 56 and 16 years removed now from a heroin addiction that sent him to jail and almost killed him, is the one alive and healthy — with a multifaceted professional life, happy marriage to singer Allison Moorer and a one-year-son, John Henry.

His appreciation of that bursts through on "Waitin' on the Sky," the opening cut of the new CD, where Earle sings: "Didn't know I was going to live this long now I'm sittin' on top of the world."

Earle had written more than songs through the years, and a collection of short stories predated his new book. His agent encouraged him to pursue the idea of a novel taking off from the true story that a doctor had been traveling with Williams when he died on Jan. 1, 1953 and had likely supplied the musician with drugs.

Not that it was easy. Earle had become a master in a discipline that required writers to boil complex ideas into concise, three or four-minute stories. Here he'd have to stretch. His idea of writing during downtime traveling on concert tours proved a bust. "You can't stare at a word processor on a moving vehicle," he said. "You'll throw up."

He borrowed a friend's apartment in Spain for a couple of stretches to write.

"It's just hard work," he said. "I typed 18 words a minute in high school when I started learning typing and I think I typed 14 when I finished. I play piano better than I type. It's painful. It's physically grueling. If I didn't go to the gym every day it would kill me. It was like somebody was beating me between the shoulders with a baseball bat."

In the novel, Dr. Joseph Alexander Ebersole III — everyone just knows him as "Doc" — had settled into a seedy part of San Antonio. He'd long since lost his license, but paid for his drug fixes by providing under-the-table medical services to the community around him. His life begins changing when a Mexican girl for whom he'd performed an abortion stays to live with him, and Hank's ghost doesn't like the competition for his time.

Williams was an obvious draw for him.

"Hank Williams haunts me, and I think everybody else who does what I do, to a certain extent," he said. "He certainly did Townes (Van Zandt, Earle's musical hero). Townes died on New Year's Day, and I'm not sure it's totally an accident."