Steve Earle practically disappeared in the early '90s when his heroin addiction threatened to consume him. But the renegade, alt-country rocker is determined to make the most of a second chance.
"I tore up three trucks and really should have died in all three wrecks," Earle said by phone before a benefit concert in Palo Alto.
Earle and his backup rock band the Dukes play tonight at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim.
"I've got to do things differently than I used to just to stay alive," Earle said. "A lot of the decisions I've made are recovery decisions, rather than business or artistic ones. I put that first because I have to."
Over the past five years, a sober Earle has released some of his best work. The low-key, acoustic-driven "Train A Comin' " (1995) was a welcome return to form; 1997's "El Corazon" was nominated for a Grammy in the contemporary folk album category; and "The Mountain," his latest, all-bluegrass recording with the Del McCoury Band, is a spirited outing that pays homage to a genre of music Earle calls "the original alt-country."
The Texas-bred singer-songwriter guitarist has always roamed stylistically, ranging from country and folk to rock 'n' roll and heartland rock. Although the use of the bluegrassy mandolin was prominent in Earle's otherwise rock-oriented "Copperhead Road" (1988), "The Mountain" represents Earle's ambitious attempt to make a long-lasting impression on the traditional bluegrass community.
"This is my best interpretation of the music that Bill Monroe invented," said Earle, 45, who wrote every song on "The Mountain."
"My roots are in hillbilly music, and what I was really after was a kind of immortality. I wanted just one song that at least one band would perform at every bluegrass festival long after I've left this world. I think, at least artistically, I accomplished what I set out to do--although I have [ticked] some people off in the process."
Among those disenchanted was Del McCoury. While McCoury toured with Earle, McCoury publicly expressed his disapproval of Earle's use of salty language onstage. When the Del McCoury Band left the tour back in June, Earle played solo for about a month before forming a touring band, the Bluegrass Dukes, which featured mandolinist Tim O'Brien, banjo player Darrell Scott, fiddler Casey Driessen and upright bassist Dennis Crouch.
"I told him I was sorry I made him feel uncomfortable but that it's just a part of who I am," Earle said. "But Del continued to play with us long after our conversation, and he seemed to be having a good time.
"The split didn't come until we played at MerleFest [an annual bluegrass festival held in Wilkesboro, N.C.] That's where [the promoters] had Del and his band play a separate set on a smaller second stage.
"His decision to leave came over [concert] billing, not my language, and that's really unfortunate. I still have tremendous respect for him. . . . They're the best bluegrass band in the world."
Earle is looking ahead rather than behind. He's already recorded his next album and plans to master it soon after a New Year's Eve gig in Chicago that will also feature Wilco and the Jayhawks.
To be titled "Transcendental Blues" and scheduled for release in May, the 14-track collection is rock-oriented but will include a couple of bluegrass numbers; a few Irish-based songs with Sharon Shannon's band that were recorded in Dublin; and one selection with Marah, the promising roots-rock band from Philadelphia that Earle has signed to his E-Squared label.
"The new record is like 'El Corazon' on steroids," Earle said. "It covers a lot of things in a lot of different gears. Lyrically, it has some of the most personal stuff I've ever done."
Earle, who's been divorced six times, is enamored of the written word. He's an avid reader, particularly of current events, fiction and the poetry of Seamus Haney, Michael Longley, Philip Levine and Camiko Hahn. He's written a collection of short stories titled 'Doghouse Roses" that is scheduled to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
In January, Earle--who was greatly influenced by critically lauded troubadours Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt--will begin teaching a songwriting course at the Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music.
The course examines the relationship between traditional music and original tunes.
"We'll talk some about structural things, like keeping your writing organized and focused," Earle said. "But the lessons center around taking what's come before us and using it to our advantage. I've got that old folk-singer mentality. . . . It's like Jimmy Driftwood told me in '72 at the Kerryville Folk Festival: 'When you learn a song from somewhere, you should tell somebody where you learned it.' "
Along with everything else, Earle continues his social and political activism. He's voiced his opposition to the death penalty, the cause he feels the most passionate about, at numerous demonstrations as well as in song.