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."
Earle’s effort brought forth a wide swath of critical opinion. In the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Jeff Johnson writes that "Earle proves an imaginative, insightful author with an innate gift to storytelling." But while there’s no question Earle can tell a great story, Kim Curtis of The Associated Press wrote that "he cannot seem to sustain it throughout this short volume of fiction."
Earle brought to his novel writing a strong ear for character nuances and voice, said Jenna Johnson, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
"Steve shows a remarkable respect and empathy for his characters even as he lets them be full and complicated and not always sympathetic people," said Johnson, who edited the book. "This is not something every novelist can pull off."
Writing a novel was new for Earle; recording an album certainly wasn’t. Although the songwriting process came across a longer period of time and it took Earle awhile to recognize its theme, he had very definite ideas about how he wanted to make it.
Earle is an experienced producer himself, both of his work and others, but he decided early on he wanted producer T Bone Burnett at the helm for this one. He wanted to concentrate on songwriting without being distracted by other chores.
"I really wanted to push the poetics way, way past the decimal point," he said.
In addition to a goodbye swipe at former President George W. Bush ("Little Emperor"), he writes about New Orleans from the perspective of the character he portrays in HBO’s "Treme" in "This City." Earle takes on the Gulf oil spill through the narrative device of three generations of men who made a living off the water. His description of the spill is harrowing: "One night I swear I saw the devil crawlin’ from the hole and he spilled the guts of hell out in the Gulf of Mexico."
Moorer makes some appearances to sing with her husband, and Earle’s "Every Part of Me" is one of his most poignant love songs.
Burnett, who was part of the disc’s band, put together expert musicians and recorded quickly while the material was fresh to them and not over-rehearsed, Earle said. His skill was in always knowing which performance was best.
"I think I sang really well on this record," Earle said. "There are some people who hate my voice. If your suspension of disbelief extends to the idea that I can sing at all, this is about as well as I’ve sung on a record. A lot of that is T Bone."
Earle is touring through this summer with a full electric band, his first time doing that in a few years. He’ll do a lengthy show with acoustic sections largely concentrated on his last few albums, a short set with his featured vocalist — Moorer — and a more expansive electric exploration of his lengthening body of work.