Wednesday, June 1, 2011

REVIEW: Steve Earle - I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, CD and Novel

Having beaten drug addiction, imprisonment, divorces and untold struggles, Steve Earle is making up for lost time. His string of records over the past 15 years has been extraordinarily good, for my money better than the music that made him a star 25 years ago.

He’s acting on TVs shows The Wire and Treme. He married the gifted country singer Allison Moorer and they have a new baby. And now he has published his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) with the same title as his brand new CD (New West Records).

Earle’s newest music hits on all his favorite touch points – folk, country, rock, Cajun, Celtic, bluegrass. He is quick to credit Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as his mentors, and that type of story based, careful writing remains Earle’s strength.

Not surprising for a guy in his mid-50s releasing his 14th studio record, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive does not break new ground or see Earle reinvent himself. Why would we want that? Instead, we get a series of very well crafted songs, with Earle’s writing at the top of his game. He brought in T Bone Burnett to produce, a major break from Earle’s usual self-production. Burnett, in turn, brought in an A list of musicians – including Greg Leisz, Sara Watkins, T Bone himself on guitars, and perhaps most importantly, the great Jay Bellerose on drums. The recording was done very quickly, in less than a week, and has a warm, organic, live feel. Every song is a strong one and the writing here is simply outstanding.

Here’s the lead track “Waiting for the Sky to Fall”:

And just because he’s in love, a new Daddy, in the best shape of his life, and artistically hitting on all cylinders, Earle hasn’t gone soft or given up his unflinching political voice. There’s a raging anti-George W. Bush rant (“Little Emperor”), and two about the ravaging of South Louisiana (“The Gulf of Mexico” and “This City”).

If you have ever enjoyed Steve Earle's music, but not checked in awhile, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is well worth getting. If you are a younger reader here or somehow missed the boat on him but enjoy Americana music, it’s a perfectly fine place to start.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through the novel and loving it. I went to see Earle read from I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive at a local bookstore last week. He was warmer, funnier and more self-deprecating than I expected (somehow I had him pegged as an artist I love who I would be well advised not to approach if I ran into in an airport). He says he was inspired by the Harry Potter series, by which I think he meant to create something that moved freely from the real to the fantastical. Here we have the ghost of Hank Williams Sr. lurking about starting conversations, a well meaning drug addled fake doctor, a mysterious young Mexican girl who seems to be performing miracles, very realistic street and drug scenes, all set in San Antonio in 1963. The Kennedy assassination is worked in there too. It’s raw, real, funny, and warm in an odd way. Life, death, love, loss, redemption, it's all there.

Good writing is good writing, song or novel. Steve Earle is making the most of his gifts and proving he can do it all.

Link for the novel:

Artist web page:

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