"Didn't know that I was gonna live this long," Steve Earle sings on the new song Waitin' on the Sky, "now, I am sitting on top of the world." The once hard-living troubadour, clean since the late 1990s, keeps busy with an acting gig on HBO's Treme and a new album and novel, both with the same Hank Williams-inspired title, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Earle spoke to The Globe and Mail about gifts and grails and a New York state of mind.
Given the title of your new book and album, I have to ask: How are you doing?
I feel pretty good. I'm probably the best shape I've ever been in. For a long time, I was pretty famous for abusing myself. But I think I was probably spared for something. I believe that. But I'm nowhere near arrogant enough to know what it is when I do it.
It would seem to be making music or acting or writing a book.
I think I have a gift to do those things. But I've abused those gifts. I basically got so high for so long that I eventually stopped writing. Which is going to happen, it just makes sense.
There are themes of spirituality and holy grails on the album. Can you talk about I Am a Wanderer?
That and God Is God were written for Joan Baez. I produced her last record. It's still me, but it was for Joan to sing, so I was trying to frame things in pretty big brush strokes so we would both be able to relate to it.
Joan Baez said God Is God had to do with your recovery program.
I told her that people were going to think she was in a 12-step program. It's totally recovery speak, which is my spiritual system. When you get into that realm, you're going to get into that language from me.
In a review of your 1991 live album Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, Dave Marsh wrote that the record felt like an end of a chapter. Was it?
Yeah, it was. Right after that record, I slipped off the face of the Earth. And it was almost five years before I came back. That was one lifetime. This is another.
What chapter are you in now?
Maybe it's the third one. This is my 14th studio album. The last five years, since I moved to New York, I feel at home for the first time in my life. I'm 56. It takes living in a place where I can see any movie or see live theatre or see great works of art, and have hundreds of choices in those areas. I need that stimulation now to write.
A review of your novel described it as a "mix of hard reality and dark imagination." Could we describe you in the same way?
I don't know. What sums me up is that I'm a recovering addict and a father and a husband. And I make art - that's my job. But it's not who I am.
Musicians who define themselves by their music never retire. Will you?
Retiring for me will probably mean touring less, just playing festivals, working in the summertime and writing a book every once in a while. The acting thing is fun. It kind of juices the writing.
What's the grail for you these days, then?
I'm just trying to stay out of trouble. I'm trying to justify my existence. I'm trying to justify the space I take up on the planet, because it's pretty crowded.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses) play Nanaimo, B.C., June 28; Victoria, June 29; Toronto, Aug. 20; Owen Sound, Ont., Aug. 25; Sudbury, Ont., Aug. 27; London, Ont., Aug. 29; Lindsay, Ont., Aug. 30; Kingston, Aug. 31; Charlestown, Sept. 3; Fredericton, Sept. 5, Moncton, N.B., Sept. 6; Membertou, N.S., Sept. 8; St. John's, Sept. 10.