Three drug overdoses. Two pistols in his face. Three horrifying car wrecks. Five ex-wives. A month-long jail stint.
That’s Steve Earle’s ugly, ugly past.
Earle should be dead; he admits that. But those experiences keep him working at a frantic pace now, restoring his pre-drug addiction legacy as one of America’s best songwriters.
“When you don’t have to go out and find $500 worth of dope every day,” Earle says with a snarl at his sordid history, “it seems like you have a lot of time.”
So Earle, a rousing live act since he burst on the country scene in the mid-1980s, writes, tours and records. All the time.
He’s been drug-free for almost nine years. During that time, he’s recorded six critically acclaimed albums, written a short-story book and a play about an executed Texas woman, and spoken against the death penalty.
Earle, who plays at the Orpheum Theatre Friday night, turned 48 three weeks ago. He regrets his “lost years” to drugs, adding, “I was (age) 35 to 40 – that’s prime time.”
Then last fall, Earle unleashed the politically fueled album “Jerusalem,” which received talk-show publicity for a song expressing how John Lindh might have been enticed by the Taliban. Earle also takes a staunch anti-war stance in the title cut by singing with bite, “I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school.”
As a result, Earle continued to establish himself as a political singer-songwriter. He says that label only coincides with world or national events.
“I don’t think Woody Guthrie was a political songwriter. I think he was a songwriter who lived in politically charged times,” Earle says. “I’ve always had my political beliefs, but these are politically charged times.”
In concert, Earle will feature a cross-section of his career, although he’ll highlight the “Jerusalem” album. Can a political album entertain concertgoers?
“It’s easy. This album rocks. That’s part of what it’s about. I probably talk less during this show than I ever have. I don’t have to. The songs are already about ideas.”
“Jerusalem” also includes two of Earle’s best broken relationship tunes. “Take your red dress, leave the hanger,” he sings on one. Then there’s “I Remember You,” a poignant duet with Emmylou Harris.
Earle received a Grammy nomination for “Jerusalem” in the contemporary folk album category and, despite his lack of commercial leanings, he’s proud of the award nod. He says he would have felt paranoid if the Grammy’s bypassed “Jerusalem” for its political stances.
Forgotten on the televised portion, the folk category has grown into one of the most competitive with top-notch winning albums by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
This year, the folk nominees include Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Patty Griffin and Nickel Creek. “I like every record in this category,” Earle says. “This is my ninth nomination and I’ve never won one.” He laughs. “I’m the Susan Lucci of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Each Earle tour has included a Madison stop. He’s fond of the city’s support.
“Madison’s one of those places that’s always understood my work,” he says. “Most people who bought ‘Copperhead Road’ (his best-selling album from 1988) were disposed Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. There were people in Madison who understood why I wrote ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Johnny Come Lately.’ I was trying to lend a voice to people other than myself. That’s why I do what I do.”
And to continue that work Earle knows he must fight his drug demons that nearly killed him.
“I guess I’m supposed to be here,” he says. “I’ve stayed around long enough to get clean. But I still go to meetings and call my sponsor. That’s how I stay clean. If I stop doing that stuff, you know, I’ll be back where I started and I’ll die.”