As Steve Earle recounted to The New York Times' Anthony DeCurtis last month, he knew he was too deep into his own addictions when Townes Van Zandt—like Earle himself, one of the true if troubled geniuses of American songcraft—arrived to assess his peer's health.
Van Zandt didn't outlive his own problems, but Earle did: In the decade-plus since that visit, the native Texan and resident New Yorker has waged a one-man campaign of ideals and output, rallying against the war in Iraq and the death penalty and for veterans while forming a bluegrass band, winning a Grammy, acting in The Wire and releasing album after album of well-considered country-rock narration. The latest of those, simply titled Townes, recasts 15 of Van Zandt's best through mostly simple, eloquent Greenwich Village apartment takes. After the first show of a solo tour in Massachusetts, Earle talked candidly about Van Zandt and the troubles of his own mind.
PRODUCTION: I make a lot of art, and I do it because I'm really thankful to be able to make a living doing something I really love. I write songs, and I write plays, and I write prose, and I paint. I'm finishing a book right now. We teach art to kids as electives: "This is something that is not the important stuff. It is something you do in your spare time if you make good grades." And that's so stupid. It's our biggest weakness as a society. The difference between human beings and animals is not the opposable thumb. The difference between humans and animals is that we create and consume art, and it's sustenance to us. It's not an elective.
BITTERSWEET: There's a lot of survivor guilt in this record. I don't know why I survived. Townes died of the same disease I have, and I've managed to get sober. Because I keep doing the stuff I'm supposed to do, I stay sober. I can't explain why he never even wanted to try.
DIVERSITY: Diversity's, I think, the foundation of everything that's good. The more varied your experience is, the more kinds of people that you're around, the more art that you expose yourself to, the more situations that you allow yourself to be introduced into and work the problems as they occur and enjoy the things that are going around you as they come up, the better off you are. It's one of the reasons I love New York City so much. It's diverse on a molecular level. More than anything else, I got sick of Baptists and Republicans [in Texas and Tennessee]. I got to Nashville in a golden era, when I saw Townes, Guy Clark, Neil Young and John Prine in the same room on mics. The world kind of came to us. Then I started touring, but what it boiled down to was, as I get older, what if I had a stroke or a heart attack and couldn't tour anymore? Do I want to be stuck in Nashville, Tenn.? The answer is no.
LINEAGE: Tradition is important to me, so I pay attention. I think it's useful sometimes to trace where we come from, whether that's bloodlines or whether it's just who we learn from, who our teachers are. One thing Townes, Guy Clark and I all have in common is that we saw Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. All those experiences linking together make us who we are. I found out making this record that I'm a lot more Townes Van Zandt-based than I thought I was, musically. I knew this record would be good since they're really great songs, but I wasn't prepared for how profound an experience it was. There was nobody in the room most of the time except me and Steve Christensen, who was the engineer. He said at one point he felt he was almost eavesdropping on something that was so intimate it was uncomfortable for him to watch at times. I knew these songs would come naturally, but I thought I would be less affected by it just because I just didn't think it would be as profoundly emotional as it was.
SELF-MOTIVATION: Motivation can mean a lot of things. A lot of people thought I was motivated in the '90s, and the fact of the matter was I paid $8,000 in child support and alimony, so I was nearly desperate. Motivation is whatever works, works. It ranges from "I got a radio show I got to turn in so I can get the check" to "If I keep doing this, this way, then I might be able to do a little bit towards there not being a death penalty in the United States anymore." I've had people who've come up to me that I've changed their minds about the death penalty. That's motivation. That keeps me from giving up. It lets me know that it's worthwhile.
Steve Earle plays The ArtsCenter solo Wednesday, June 10. Joe Pug opens. Tickets for the 8:30 p.m. show cost $39.