This information is communicated in the sighing Texan drawl with which he was born, each hotel, one suspects, being pretty much like another to him.
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Earle is on tour, but when isn’t he? On average he plays around 200 gigs a year, not quite perhaps in Dylan’s league but not far off it. He is a man who gets restless doing nothing. When not on stage he’s either writing or acting or agitating. Or getting married. To date, aged 56, he has been married seven times, twice to the same woman. Tall, bald, bespectacled and bearded, and usually dressed as if about to go duck-hunting, he may look like an unlikely Mr Darcy but women clearly find him irresistible. Once, one of his biographers told me she’d have considered marrying him had she not been lesbian.
The incumbent Mrs Earle is the singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. Eighteen months ago, the couple had a son, Earle’s third, whom they called John Henry. Not, one assumes, after John Henry Newman, the Catholic theologian who is en route to canonisation. It would appear not. Nor, says Earle, was he named “after the owner of Boston Red Sox and Manchester f****** United”. Time being of the essence, I refrain from mentioning that the fellow he is talking about actually owns Liverpool FC. In keeping with Earle’s grassroots credentials his new boy owes his name to John Henry, the black American folk hero, a former slave who while working on the railways always stood up to authority.
Such history matters to Earle. Integrity and principle, too. Doing things simply to make money sits uncomfortably with him. He’d like to write more poetry, he says, being an admirer of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Ted Hughes, but finds it hard to accommodate. “Because, you know, I hate to admit it, because there’s less commercial outlet for it. I don’t have much time to do it because people will pay [better] for the other stuff.” Every year, however, he writes and reads a poem on New Year’s Day at the Poetry Project, founded by Allen Ginsberg, at St Mark’s Church in Manhattan.
By any standard this has been a more productive year than most for Earle. In the spring he released his latest album, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, to the kind of reviews that are reserved for second comings. In the summer came a novel, Earle’s first, of the same name. The two are related by theme (mortality – though “not necessarily in the morbid sense”) and acquired added meaning with John Henry’s birth and the death three years ago of his 74-year-old father. In the album’s sleeve notes, Earle recalls, he was in Tennessee by chance when his dad died. “I alone of my brothers and sisters elected to remain outside while the machinery that tethered my Father’s soul to earth was shut down and he slipped away. I don’t know why. It was simply more than I could do.”
Then there is the ghost of Hank Williams, the title of whose last, posthumous hit Earle has borrowed. Williams is to country music what Shakespeare is to drama. The word most often used to sum him up is “lonesome”, which is quite different from “lonely”. Listen to Williams and you can hear what lonesome sounds like, a world-weary melancholy combined with an unrequited yearning for companionship, love, tenderness, a soulmate. Lonesome, Earle’s said, with the knowledge of one who’s talking from raw experience, is “a hole in your heart so big and so deep that no amount of money or whisky or pussy or dope in the whole goddam world can fill it up”.
You can hear it, too, in many of Earle’s songs, expressed simply and unsentimentally, for instance, in Every Part Of Me, one of 11 tracks on the new album. “I love you with all my heart,” he sings, with almost religious fervour, “all my soul and every part of me.” Like all songs destined to survive it transcends the personal and the specific to become universally applicable and timeless.
While the songs on I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive were written over a three-year period and recorded quickly, the novel has been long in gestation. In it, heroin-addicted Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams. It is 1963, 10 years after Williams’ death, when he was just 29. In a resonant parallel with the ongoing case about Michael Jackson, rumour has it that the Doc administered the country legend the final dose of morphine that killed him. Now he lives in a San Antonio dosshouse, surrounded by bums and addicts, and prostitutes to whom he administers abortions for the cash to feed his habit. His downward slide has been precipitous and doesn’t appear have reached its bottom.
Williams, meanwhile, is imagined as an evil hillbilly whose appearance feels like that of the Grim Reaper, in contrast to the reverence in which the real person is held. As the Doc sits in a bar, sooner or later someone puts one of Williams’ songs on the jukebox. “Ol’ Hank,” he thinks, “dead and buried beneath six feet of rusty red Alabama dirt for the better part of a decade now, still taking their nickels and making them cry.”
“The novel,” explains Earle, “was based on the idea, that story you always hear, about a doctor travelling with Hank Williams when he died, which I’ve heard about all my life. It turned out the guy wasn’t really a doctor. I decided it would be more interesting if he was. Toby Marshall, the actual historical person who may or may not have been with Hank when he died – he was not there when the police arrived – was not actually a medical doctor. He was a quack who claimed he could cure alcoholism with chloral hydrate, which is a barbiturate. I decided that a fictional character who was really a doctor was more interesting and less of a legal liability and I forged on from there.”
Earle might well himself have followed Williams’ disastrous career path. His father was an air traffic controller and he grew up – as he acknowledges in Waitin’ On The Sky, the opening song in the new album – “in a military town waitin’ on the sky to fall”. He dropped out of school, moved to Houston to immerse himself in the music business and released his first album, Guitar Man, in 1986, by when he was already a heroin addict. Like Doc Ebersole he hit the skids and ended up in jail where he kicked the habit. Thus when he writes about the hunger for a fix he knows whereof he speaks. Since those dolorous days, however, his work ethic has been phenomenal, including 14 albums, an autobiography and a collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses. Meanwhile countless performers have recorded his compositions, from The Proclaimers to Johnny Cash.
Ask him to pinpoint an epiphanic moment and he has no hesitation. “It’s weird. I grew up in an era, which I fear is over, when rock and roll was art, or could be art. And I’m not sure it’s that any more. I think it was growing up in an era when the album was the coin of the realm ... The very first record I went out and bought with my own money was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It set the tone for my entire life as an artist. Now I just wonder whether people that are coming up, you know, get in front of the mirror with a tennis racket and pretend it’s a guitar.”
His intoxication with music is one drug Earle is unlikely ever to want to forswear. But watching him act, first in The Wire and more recently in Treme, you can’t help but wonder what path he might have taken if he’d been put in front of a camera when he was younger. Playing a recovering drug addict, he survived five seasons in The Wire while all around were being shot to pieces. In Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, his character, a busker, is one of comparatively few to get bumped off. Did the producer, David Simon, tell him what was in store?
Earle sighs as he contemplates his alter ego’s demise as if it were his own. “No, he didn’t tell me when he engaged me to do it. I think he knew it was a possibility ... There was a hint in a conversation I had by email with David. It was just me being paranoid and I emailed him and asked if I had a job next year and he sent back a kinda cryptic email saying, ‘Yeh, we have a great storyline for you. You’re gonna make people cry.’ I thought, ‘Aw f***, I’m gonna get killed’.”