March 11, 2011 Steve Earle spent decades as a below-the-radar genius with passionate fans but not a lot of literary recognition outside the world of songwriting. In fact, Earle is not only a hit songwriter (for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, The Pretenders, Joan Baez, and others, including himself; his last three albums won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album), but also a playwright, author of the short-story collection Doghouse Roses, and a scholar of the work of James Agee. (Earle wrote the introduction for the 2009 re-release of Agee’s A Death in the Family.) But besides music, what Earle is best known for are his marriages (seven), his 1994 prison stint (for drug possession), and his social activism on behalf of American unions and death-row inmates. He has also appeared as a supporting actor on HBO in both The Wire (as Walon) and Treme.
Now Earle is poised for much wider literary recognition, as well: his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive hits shelves on May 12. The book in named for the last song released by Hank Williams, who appears in the novel as a ghost. In a recent feature in The Los Angeles Times, Earle describes the story’s origins:
“I’d always heard that there was a doctor traveling with Hank when he died. When I buckled down, I discovered that Hank had been seeing a guy named Toby Marshall, who was not a doctor; he was a quack who claimed to be able to cure alcoholism with chloral hydrate. But I thought it would be more interesting if my character was a real doctor, so I went with that.”
The story follows this tormented, guilt-wracked doctor, a heroine addict, to San Antonio’s red-light district, where he performs abortions but also encounters a Mexican girl named Graciela, who has healing powers. “Hank’s ghost was there from the beginning,” Earle told the Times, “but I was not planning to have so many spirits. I wasn’t expecting the magical realism. The theme that shocked me was all these people seeing things.”
Read the full feature here. Download Earle’s songs to benefit Wisconsin’s public unions here.
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16‘s News & Notes page, here.