Steve Earle: ‘My wife left me for a younger, skinnier, less talented singer’

After seven marriages and a near fatal heroin habit, the great singer-songwriter is now single, sober and interested only in caring for his autistic son. He talks about death threats, blowing $1,000 a day on drugs and being an incorrigible romantic

Steve Earle has never been so busy. The 62-year-old is a singer-songwriter, actor, playwright, novelist, memoirist, political activist and weve not even got to the heart of the matter yet. Autism is the centre of my life, apart from recovery. They are the two things that control my life.

Earle has never been one for beating around the bush. Seven years ago, his then wife, the country star Allison Moorer, gave birth to their son. John Henry is autistic and largely non-verbal. He loves playing the drums, has a passion for water, and is not easily controllable. Earle and Moorer split up five years ago. She was wife number six (he has been married seven times, as he married Lou-Anne Gill, with whom he had the second of his three sons, twice), and probably the love of his life. As for the recovery, there doesnt appear to be a drug that Earle has not had a problem with heroin, cocaine, LSD, you name it. He has been clean for 22 years but, as he says, he has to work hard at it.

Earle is one of the great singer-songwriters of the past four decades. He is a master of country, rock and country-rock. His voice is both gruff and tender (Tom Waits meets Hank Williams), his tunes gorgeous (impossible to know where to start, but My Old Friend the Blues is as good a place as any) and his lyrics novelistic.

Despite the bravado of its title, Earles new album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, is one of his most tender yet. It is about love and loss and another form of recovery. This Is How it Ends is a duet with country star Miranda Lambert, reminiscent of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner in their prime. Its message might be bleak, but the song is uplifting. Three years on from their divorce, you sense he is still coming to terms with separating from Moorer.

Earle looks like an ageing Hells Angel long straggly grey beard, waistcoat, T-shirt, jeans, tattoos. All thats missing is the Harley. Ive never met somebody so Texan. Syllables merge into one and consonants are dispensed with entirely, so the word centre becomes sinner. Nor have I met somebody with so many stories. I know a little about a lot, he says. Its not quite true. He knows a lot about a lot.

He was with Moorer for eight years his longest marriage. They lived and toured and gigged together. He would introduce her on stage with the love song he wrote for her, Sparkle and Shine (My baby sparkle and shine / And I cant believe shes mine). I ask if the songs on the new album are about her. Some are, some arent. They all draw on that relationship. This isnt the first time Ive gotten dumped. And Ive left people too, which has its own set of lows and guilts. This record is more about coming to terms with loss.

Is he planning on an eighth marriage, and seventh Mrs Earle? He shakes his head. Erm, no. I dodged a bullet recently. Long pause. There are women. But I like sitting where I want to in the movies and when you go to the theatre at the last minute you can get a really good seat if youre looking for a single. If I go to a baseball game I can stay for the whole thing. Youre enjoying being single? I actually am. Being single in New York City doesnt suck. Im lonely sometimes, but Im on the road half the time and thats pretty lonely anyway.

He and Moorer moved to New York soon after they got together. They have stayed there because Earle believes that is where John Henry will receive the best schooling. He says it has been a source of conflict with Moorer. She resents being in New York. She wants to leave New York and thinks Im trying to control her life. Im not. I just dont want John Henry to leave New York.

Did his sons autism contribute to their split? I think it was the straw that broke the camels back, but I think she was going to leave me anyway. She traded me in for a younger, skinnier, less talented singer-songwriter.

It is astonishing that Earle is still alive, never mind producing such great music. In the early 90s he looked as if he was on his way out. After the success of early albums such as Guitar Town and Copperhead Road in the late 1980s, he did not write a song for four years. During that time, he lost virtually everything. Bikes, cars, guitars, jewellery they all went to feed his habit. I sold them to buy heroin. I lost everything but my house. The house in Tennessee I still own, though I dont know how. I guess its because I couldnt figure out how to put it in the car and take it to the pawn shop. But the house had no electricity and was uninhabitable. I was homeless essentially for two years, living on the street.

He was spending between $500 and $1,000 a day on drugs. In the end I just gave up on heroin because I wasnt getting that high so I went on the methadone programme and started smoking cocaine. I hate cocaine, I prefer heroin and opiates, but it was like being a monkey and you just conditioned yourself to push the button. You dont care whether you get a shot or a banana peel, you just want something to happen to change the way you feel. In 1994 he was sentenced to a year in jail for weapons and drugs possession, serving 60 days.

Earle says all this seems far away in one way. But in another it doesnt. He is writing his autobiography so he is having to revisit the darkest days. The memoir-writing is boring, he says he prefers writing when he doesnt know what is going to happen. As for recovery, that is a daily battle yoga and gym every day, the 12-step programme wherever he is in the world.

He says that John Henry has given him a renewed sense of purpose. I know why I get up in the morning now: to figure out a way to make sure hes going to be alright when Im gone. Thats my job. Thats what I do.

Sparkle and shine Earle onstage with Allison Moorer in 2011. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Ideally, hed like to tour less. But he cant because thats how he makes his money. Anyway, he loves being with his band, the Dukes. I think everybodys proud of being in this band. Its like being a Hells Angel. Were kinda badasses. Its a really, really fuckin good band and the way we tour is hardcore four shows in a row then a night off at best. Only one other band member is clean, he says, and the others tend not to socialise with Earle because they find him so dull now hes sober.

They might find him dull, but in his two decades of sobriety his work has been fascinating. Earle might be better known to some these days through his acting than his music. I tell him I loved him as Walon in The Wire. He smiles. Thanks. It was a great thing to be part of. That didnt require any acting: I was playing a redneck recovering addict.

In 2011 he published a novel, Ill Never Get Out of This World Alive, about a doctor who performs illegal abortions and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. His 2005 play Karla was about convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War.

Earle does not so much sympathise with the underdog as with the despised. In 2002 he caused a stink when he recorded a beautiful song called John Walkers Blues. The controversy wasnt simply that it was about jailed US Muslim convert and Taliban sympathiser John Walker Lindh, it was that Earle sang in the first person. Thats a brave thing to do, I say. I guess so. I told Elvis Costello when Id just got the idea for it and the chorus was la ilaha illa Allah and he said: Youre out of your mind, dont do that.

Earle received death threats because of the song. Did people assume he was a Taliban sympathiser? Some did. But a lot of them were people who never even heard the song because Im a pretty obscure artist when you look at the big picture.

Why did he want to write it? Because I saw a 20-year-old underfed kid Duct-Taped to a board and he was exactly the same age as my oldest son Justin [Justin Townes Earle, now a successful musician in his own right], which means that kid has been in prison now 15 years. Did he empathise with him? I empathised with him as a parent.

Earle says people have assumed that when he sang in character it was his personal view, even when he was satirising it. He cites Johnny Come Lately, about a blowhard American soldier. Joe Strummer said Youve got a lot of balls singing that song in [the UK] and he just didnt understand what that song was about he thought it was this arrogant claim to have bailed the Brits out. The character believed that, but the characters not me, and its making fun of people who believe that.

Not that Earle has ever needed encouragement to say what he thinks. A keen Arsenal fan, he pulls a face when I mention I support Manchester City. I dislike Man City because it is Oasiss club. Noel Gallagher is the most overrated songwriter in the whole history of pop music. They were perfect for the Brit press because they behaved badly and got all the attention. Blur were really great. That guy Damon Albarn is a real fuckin songwriter.

What does he think of todays country music? The best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton. Hes great. The guys just wanna sing about getting fucked up. Theyre just doing hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people. I like <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>the new Kendrick Lamar record, so Ill just listen to that.

As for politics, Earle, a life-long socialist, says vice-president Mike Pence worries him more than Donald Trump. I dont think Trump will complete the term. I think hell probably quit. Trump really is fascist. If you look at what hes trying to do … pulling out of the Paris accord is embarrassing. I feel ashamed of America. Can he understand why people voted for Trump? Sure. And maybe thats one of the things we need to examine from my side because were responsible too. The left has lost touch with American people, and its time to discuss that.

When Earle talks politics it is not cynicism that comes through but idealism. Likewise when he talks about the many women in his life. Ive often wondered whether hes a rash man who has made a lot of bad decisions in his personal life or an incorrigible romantic. He smiles, and says its definitely the latter. He mentions his mother and father. My parents were married until my father passed away, seven or eight years ago. Thats all its about. She was 18, he was 19 when they married. And hes simply tried to emulate his parents seven times and counting. I am a romantic. Absolutely. Unapologetically. To me politics is about romance. If I thought politics was about the way things are I wouldnt fucking bother, I wouldnt read a newspaper, I wouldnt go out of the house. My involvement in politics is about the way the world should be, not the way the world is.

Steve Earle & the Dukes So You Wanna Be an Outlaw is out on Warner Bros on 16 June.

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