CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At 62 years old, Steve Earle has multiple lives worth of accomplishments.
As a musician, he has reached the top of the charts and has won three Grammy awards. As an actor, he appeared HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme.” He currently hosts a program on Sirius XM satellite radio and still manages to find time for political activism.
But Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe An Outlaw,” is not about the Earle of 2017; it is about Earle’s roots.
“I had been listening to ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ by Waylon Jennings,” he said. “That’s kind of where I come from and convinced me to go to Nashville rather than going to New York or Los Angeles.”
“So You Wannabe An Outlaw” is Earle’s 16th studio album. Dedicated to Jennings, the record finds inspiration in the outlaw country music of the 1970s and artists like Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson, who joins Earle on the title track.
Two of the songs were written for the show “Nashville” at the request of the program’s music executive producers T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller.
“I pulled those two songs and figured they had a thread that ran through them,” he said.
Earle said growing up in south Texas, he stood out from the cowboy culture surrounding him. He listened to rock bands like Derek and the Dominos as well as artists like Johnny Cash.
“Kind of a hippie kid, but a hippie kid who always wore cowboy boots,” he described his younger self.
When Willie Nelson returned from Nashville after failing to launch a successful career as an artist, fellow Texan Doug Sahm encouraged Nelson to play music that better suited his tastes rather than those of Nashville record companies.
Earle credited both Nelson and Sahm in pushing a sound that connected rock, folk and country music genres.
“(Nelson) was playing a dance hall and a lot of hippie kids come out to see him and they were all sitting on the dance floor,” Earle said of one concert he attended.
“Some of the cowboys would dance by and kick some of the kids in the back as they went by. Willie saw it, stopped and said, ‘Hey, there is room for some to sit and for some to dance.'”
When Earle moved to Nashville in November 1974 at the age of 19, the outlaw country music was in full swing. Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” and Jennings’ “Dreaming My Dreams” would be released the following year, both to critical acclaim.
“When I got there, the lunatics were in charge of the asylum,” Earle said.
Earle shopped around songs are recorded independent records until 1986 breakthrough, “Guitar Town.” The Grammy-nominated album is RIAA gold certified and has been selected as one of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
But Earle’s success has not come without struggles; he has been married seven times — twice to the same woman — and addicted to multiple drugs including heroin. After being arrested for drug and weapons possession in 1993 and 1994, he went to an outpatient treatment center.
“I didn’t go to get clean,” Earle noted. “I went to get out of an orange suit. My plan was to get feeling better and walk away because there were no bars.”
Earle said that plan changed after watching “My Name is Bill W.,” a television movie starring James Woods and James Garner. The film details the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Earle said the movie connected him with his late grandfather, who according to Earle was instrumental in starting 12-step programs in northeast Texas.
“For some reason, this light went on and I realized who these guys were that were sleeping on my grandfather’s couch,” he added.
Now 22 years clean, Earle’s career keeps him busy; he performed Sunday night in Charleston as part of Mountain Stage’s 900th episode and is writing the music for a play based on the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which killed 29 miners.
“The Exonerated” playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are writing the script.
“I took a trip over there with them about a year ago. They were doing interviews and I was just talking to people myself because I’ve got to write songs eventually,” Earle said.
“I think my accent helped with a couple of pieces,” he joked through his Texas drawl.
Earle supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign. As a socialist, Earle said the current economic environment in West Virginia will not change unless people stand up against mining companies.
“There just aren’t that many jobs that the existence of the mine creates like it did in the old days,” he argued. “All you can do is try to even those things out, and you do that by taxing the hell out of the coal producers and having them contribute to the community. Of course, when you do that, they start whining that their profits aren’t big enough and they leave. Everyone is terrified of losing those jobs.”
When it comes to music, Earle sees two reasons for working: to connect with people and for his 7-year-old son, John Henry.
“He has autism and needs really expensive treatment and school,” he said. “I know why I wake up in the morning; to figure out to make sure he’s taken care of now and after I’m gone.”
But touring across the nation for more than 30 years, Earle has seen firsthand how people can relate to his records, whether it is the hard rock sound of “Copperhead Road” or the Townes Van Zandt tribute album, “Townes.”
“Nobody cares that I’m riding around on a bus that costs more than their house, feeling sad about myself because I’m alone at this point in my life,” he said. “It’s the ways that we are the same, not the ways that we’re different. That’s how you find an audience. This job is empathy.”
It is the same job Jennings, Nelson and others had more than 40 years ago, which helped bring hippies like Earle and cowboys together.
“Sometimes, I’m empathizing with somebody because nobody else is going to (or) just because I’m not afraid to,” Earle added. “Maybe I should be, but I’m not.”
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