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Steve Earle has been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a protest singer, a playwright, a pacifist, a pawn and a king. He’s been up and down and over and out, and the most persuasive anti-drug ad on two feet. But mostly he’s been one of the greatest living American songwriters. Still is. By Jonathan Valnia
During his 58 years on god’s green earth, Stephen Fain Earle has seen a lot of craziness, the kind of shit most of us will only ever read about, not the least of which is the inside of a jail cell he once called home. He saw a man put to death by the state of Texas. He saw President John F. Kennedy wave at him in San Antonio the day
before he was assassinated. He saw Sid Vicious’ forehead split open by a redneck’s longneck. He’s stared down the barrel of a drug dealer’s gun just inches from his face. He saw Townes Van Zandt play Russian roulette across the table from him.
But right now all he can see is the business end of a high-definition video camera, into which he strums an acoustic guitar and sings “Invisible,” a moving, mournful meditation on the transparency of the homelessness in 21st-century America that is also, not coincidentally, the first single from his excellent new album, The Low Highway (New West). The video is being directed, at Earle’s behest, by writer/director and brilliant character actor Tim Blake Nelson, whose name can be most efficiently connected to his onscreen visage by saying he’s the escaped convict in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? who’s not named John Turturro or George Clooney. Or perhaps you would recognize him more easily as the creepy, wheelchair-bound, pipe-organ-playing prison technician in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, or more recently as one-third of the president’s triumvirate of arm-twisting lobbyists who persuade reluctant congressmen to vote down slavery in Spielberg’s Lincoln.
The video is being shot on the roof of the Upper East Side high-rise apartment building that Nelson calls home. It’s a dreary, bone-chillingly cold day in late winter. Earle is dressed in a green ski cap, rust-colored scarf, fingerless gloves and a hulking black overcoat. Nelson yells, “Cut,” when Earle starts laughing mid-take, having finally noticed that the cameraman has written L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E prison-tattoo-style across the fingers of his yellow work gloves.
“That is pretty fucking funny, man,” says Earle, his voice a gravelly twang. This from a man who’s seen his share of prison tattoos, and for that matter both love (been married seven times) and hate (drew the virulent ire of red-state America when he wrote a song from the perspective of so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh that revealed him to be more of a confused kid in way over his head than the bloodthirsty traitor the corporate media portrayed him as).
Nelson tells everyone to take five while they switch lenses, and we all retreat downstairs to the warmth of his kitchen, a buzzing hive of activity currently serving quadruple duty as de facto producer’s office, craft services, make-up department and downtime-killing floor. Earle takes a seat at the long table and quickly commands the center of attention. A gifted raconteur, as per his Southern pedigree, with a seemingly bottomless fount of salty tales—some taller than others—Earle knows how to hold the center, as various handlers, publicists, A&R men, fixers, hangers-on and exactly one visiting journalist take seats around him in sundry triangulated clusters as if unconsciously recreating da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Soon enough, Earle is regaling the assembled disciples with the well-rehearsed narratives of his gloriously misspent Texas youth. For reasons far too complicated and word-count-consuming to go into here, circumstances conspired to put him at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio on Jan. 8, 1978. Onstage: the Sex Pistols. “Three songs in, somebody throws a longneck beer bottle and hits Sid in the face,” says Earle, grinning broadly, a mischievous glint in his eyes as he strokes his long Rasputin-style beard. “Boom. No Sid. No bass. They sucked.”
Earle’s got a full dance card today. After filming a music video for six hours and then an early dinner, he will attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, followed by a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and then cap off the evening by performing the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man” at the Cutting Room as a special guest of performance artist Tammy Fay Starlite’s Nico tribute, Chelsea Mädchen.
The irony of going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and then performing a song about scoring drugs is not lost on Earle. In fact, he savors it. He first met Starlite when he got sober back in the mid-’90s. “When I got out of jail, she came to Tennessee to visit, and the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Is Amy Grant still a cunt?’” says Earle, who explodes into laughter before adding, “And I’ve been in love with her ever since.”
Patiently waiting for Earle to finish his tale, Nelson—who radiates a gentle Mr. Rogers-esque decency—informs the pope of alt-country and his audience that they are ready to start shooting again.
Tim Blake Nelson’s first encounter with Steve Earle was hearing Guitar Town—Earle’s career-making, Grammy-nominated, chart-topping 1986 debut—when he was 22. Born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., Nelson could relate. He’s been a super-fan ever since—“a completist,” by his own reckoning; he owns everything Earle has ever released—and years later, after studying at Brown and Julliard, and carving out a career as Hollywood’s go-to guy for effortlessly indelible character actoring, he cast Earle as Buddy Fuller, a mean-as-a-kicked-hornet redneck drug dealer who shoots Ed Norton through the chest with a crossbow in Leaves Of Grass, the 2010 black comedy that Nelson wrote, directed and co-starred in. They’ve been friends ever since.
“Steve is as quintessentially an American songwriter as there is right now, and he has impacted rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass and folk music in a big way,” says Nelson. “The fact that he has done that simultaneously is unrivaled; most artists are lucky to impact just one style of music. Steve, like another hero of mine, Tom Waits, has achieved longevity through his willingness to evolve. Those are the people to whom I am drawn—those who are perpetually venturing outside what has brought them a measure of success, and that is what I love about Steve. He doesn’t just play music; he writes, he acts. (Outlaw country singer and conceptual artist) Terry Allen told him, ‘Anything artistic you do outside of your comfort zone will make what you do inside of your comfort zone all the more deep.’ That’s the way he has lived his life. Those are the people who I want to spend my time with: people who display an insouciance about what is expected of them, about what the critics are going to say, about what their peers are going to say and all the petty jealousies. He doesn’t care.”
Several hours later, the shoot wraps and everyone heads to an Indian restaurant around the corner for dinner. Nelson sits next to Earle, and talk turns to the new Coen brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, set in the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early ’60s. Nelson, who’s been friends with Joel Coen and his wife, actress Frances McDormand, since they met at the 52nd Street Project (a charity that offers a leg up to disadvantaged kids in Hell’s Kitchen) more than a decade ago, got a sneak peek at the film the night before last. In deference to the Coens, he declines to speak about it for the record, but does allow that “it is a beautiful, delicate work of art that will both delight and surprise Coen brothers fans.”
The waitress plops down a steaming bowl of white rice, and Earle pushes it away. “I ain’t eatin’ anything that’s white for a while,” says Earle, who’s trying to get down to fighting weight for the long touring schedule that will follow the release of The Low Highway. “Last time I did this, I lost 20 pounds just by not eating white stuff.”
Talk turns to music and how all roads lead back to Dylan and Woody Guthrie before him. Nelson asserts that every songwriter—be it folk, blues or rock ‘n’ roll—who came after owes a debt to both men, and that includes modern giants like Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and, yes, Steve Earle. Earle doesn’t bother to blanche with false modesty at Nelson designating him one of the three greatest living American songwriters. He’s heard this before, and he’s not going to argue.
Instead, as he is wont to do, he offers up the tale of the time he met the Boss. It was 1988, and Earle, a cocky son of a bitch riding high on the breakout success of Guitar Town, was playing the Palace in L.A. Back then, Springsteen’s “Nebraska” was a staple of Earle’s live show. “About halfway through the show, John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen walk into the Palace,” says Earle. “I remember somebody asking me if I was still gonna do ‘Nebraska,’ and I was like ‘Fuck, yeah!’ Afterwards, Bruce came up and shook my hand, and with a smile, he said, ‘Ballsy cover.’”
Message: You’re a cocky motherfucker, but you’re all right. Earle gets a lot of that. Hell, people have been telling him that since kindergarten.
Steve Earle has been many things: the 14-year-old kid who was forcibly ejected from Fort Sam Houston army-base coffeehouse at the height of the Vietnam War for singing Country Joe & The Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (“Next stop is Vietnam … Whoopee! We’re all gonna die!”); the 15-year-old kid who ran away from home to find Townes Van Zandt the way other kids used to run away to join the circus; the battle-tested Nashville bar-band veteran at the ripe old age of 19; the bass player in Guy Clark’s band; a shift worker in the Music City’s song factories; a recording artist in his own right, cutting an EP with the Dukes, his longtime backing band, for CBS that went nowhere, then a neo-rockabilly record for Epic that also sank without a trace; then the rakishly handsome badass who signed a seven-record deal with MCA, released Guitar Town (which went gold) and told Nashville to take this job and shove it; then he was the guy who shot a million dollars’ worth of dope into his arm; the guy who didn’t write a note of music for four years; the guy who was fast becoming—up until Amy Winehouse—the most persuasive living anti-drug ad on two feet; then, after a bunch of drug-possession and weapons charges and cavalier court date no-shows, he was the guy on the run from the cops who considered him armed and dangerous; he’s been the guy sentenced to a year in jail and sprung after 60 days and remanded into rehab; he’s been the man who fell to Earth after 30 years of being high, got up, dusted himself off, threw himself into his craft, started releasing consistently masterful albums at a prolific pace until he was the guy who won three Grammys; all the while going to bat for the angels, crusading against state-sanctioned violence in all its forms—the death penalty, pre-emptive war and the economic violence that the one percent visits upon the 99 percent; finally, he was the protest singer who not only put his money where mouth is, but put his hide on the line, actually going down to the demonstration to get his fair share of abuse.
But right now he’s being a team player. He’s doing what’s got to be done to pay the rent and keep his career’s lights on: He’s playing ball. In Earle’s case, that means showing up at the office of his manager—legendary music-biz rainmaker Danny Goldberg—to sign 1,000 limited-edition seven-inches for “Burn It Down” from The Low Highway while simultaneously answering every question I can cram into two hours. The autographing part is a cramp-inducing time-suck, but it’s also a mandatory response to the shifting demographics of the record-buying public in the 21st century and, as a result, the diminished scale of the music business.
“Times have changed,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done this back in 1985—now I’ve got to. As I’ve said before, ‘We used to make records for girls; now we make records for nerds.’ I’m the kind of artist that has to do vinyl—it moves the needle for me.”
The latter part is easy: He loves to talk, and Steve Earle is one of his favorite subjects. He’s practically an expert.
When asked how he became musical, he says, “I come from a musical family. My father was an air-traffic controller that sang in barbershop quartets. My uncle, my father’s brother, was the best nine-fingered piano player in northeast Texas, and most of what I know about country music and Western swing and all that stuff comes from him.”
OK, we’ll bite. How come only nine fingers?
“He was working the night shift in a charcoal factory back in the ’60s and he saw a bad briquette going by,” says Earle. “He had this habit of just reaching out and grabbing them off the conveyer belt and throwing them out so they didn’t have to be sorted later. So, he reached out to grab it and the belt grabbed his wedding band. Just pulled his finger off. And they looked and tried to find it so that they could reattach it, ’cause you could do that sometimes. But they would never have been able to reattach it in Jacksonville, Texas, in the ’60s. They never did find it. Somebody got some extra meat for their barbeque that weekend. That was always the joke.
“Another uncle left behind a pile of records—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Axis: Bold As Love, Disraeli Gears—and a 12-string guitar. ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ was the first song I learned to play. Then I worked my way back to the first couple Dylan records.”
When Earle was 14, he started playing coffee houses, and it was there that he first heard talk of this mysterious drifter whose legend loomed large on the Texas folk circuit: Townes Van Zandt, a dashingly handsome, tall drink of water whose outsized talent as a songwriter was overmatched by the scope of his appetite for self-destruction. Though he would later become, along with Gram Parsons, one of the patron saints of alt-country, back then Van Zandt was mostly just trouble on two feet, at least to club owners.
“Just knowing Townes could get you thrown out of some places,” says Earle. “I ran away from home and went looking for him. I heard a lot about him, but he was, like, he didn’t live anywhere, so you had to be in the right place at the right time to catch him.”
That would take another three years. Earle first saw Van Zandt at a party in Austin, but he was too intimidated to introduce himself. Fast-forward a few months. One night Earle was playing a place called the Old Porter for an audience of three or four. By the second set, the audience had grown by one.
“Townes was there,” says Earle. “He heckled me for half of my set; he kept yelling, ‘Play “Wabash Cannonball”’—he was fucking with me. He was always hard on me, at least when he was drunk, which was most of the time.”
MAGNET: Townes could be a mean drunk?
EARLE: He suffered from hypophrenia, a personality disorder peculiar to alcoholics who are absolutely allergic to alcohol. It causes them to behave radically irrational instantly, as soon as they get any alcohol in their system. Montgomery Clift had it, you know. I’ve known drunks like that. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they, you know … and Townes was funny sometimes. But he also played Russian roulette and other shit like that, you know, that wasn’t all that much fun.
My relationship with Townes is very strange because I didn’t buy it, unlike a lot of the people around Townes. They encouraged his behavior. They worshipped him, but they also encouraged him to behave the way that he did and hurt himself, and sort of hastened his demise.
The bad part of it was that I gave myself license to think I was doing OK ’cause I wasn’t as fucked up as Townes, but I was. I was always an addict. I started shooting dope when I was 13 years old. But, my first drug of choice was lysergic acid diethylamide 25. I remember real acid, and I was fascinated and took it as often as I could. I probably took acid 100 times in three years, and it was like every chance I could get off. You couldn’t get off two days in a row. The chemical just won’t allow you to do that. It was the only thing that kept me from doing it every day. I took lots of mushrooms and peyote. And I believed that Carlos Castaneda had met a Yaqui sorcerer for at least five-year … no, four-year period of my life. Then I had a pretty bad trip that sort of stopped me from taking acid for years after that. I just did too much. And I ended up in the hospital in a big old shot of Thorazine.
Then Guitar Town comes out, and all of a sudden I had money. By the time Copperhead Road came out in ’88, I was strung out. I was riding back and forth to San Antonio to a methadone during the Bob Dylan tour, because it was too impractical to depend on what drugs I could score on the road and I was too strung out to do anything at that point. By the time The Hard Way came out (in 1990), I was in really, really bad shape.
What was a typical day in the life of Steve Earle like, in the deepest depths of his drug addiction?
Well, that would be some years later than that. Wake up wherever I woke up. My own house would be the least likely place. A motel room, usually on the floor of it, that somebody was living in—usually a drug dealer or a prostitute. I was living in a motel on Murfreesboro Road in Nashville, or in a car that didn’t belong to me that I borrowed from somebody and conveniently didn’t bother to return, or under a bridge. I’d wake up sick and usually I’d end up in South Nashville, ’cause that’s where the cocaine was—my record was 13 days awake. I usually would wake up over there, which meant I was opiate-sick. So, I would have to go to the other side of town. If I had a car, get somebody to take me to find out if there was some royalties I could get a hold of, or get somebody to wire me some of the money that was supposedly owed to me, or borrowed some money from somebody or something and come up with enough money to (buy heroin and) get straight, and then go to East Nashville and buy dilaudids and, you know, shoot one or two dilaudids just to get straight. I’d always go back over to South Nashville and start smoking crack. It was a big enough piece of time, and cocaine sort of makes you come off of opiates faster, so I’d be sick by 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. I’d have to find some more dope, and it just went like that.
Is that when you started carrying a gun?
No, I grew up with them. I was a criminal. I was carrying a gun because I was a criminal and around criminals. I didn’t steal very much. I didn’t have to most of the time. I never committed an armed robbery. Well, I robbed a couple of drug dealers, so I guess that’s an armed robbery.
Yeah. I … well, I did it once. But it was his own gun. A guy got in my car and I … there was no dope on the street, there was no dope to be found, but I was so strung out. I had $20. That’s all I had, and I pulled up in a car with a quarter-tank of gas, and this kid, I knew him, I knew he was a fucking asshole. I knew nobody would give him (drugs to sell) on a good day, but I was so desperate. I let him in my fucking car and he stuck a pistol in my face and said, “Give me that fucking $20!” I was like, “You know what, motherfucker? You’re going to have to kill me. This $20 is going to go to the first person that comes up with a piece of crack cocaine.” By that time, I was on methadone, and I smoked crack to get high. It was a pretty horrible existence. Did methadone to keep from getting sick, smoked crack to get higher, didn’t even like the high. Anyway, he said, “Come on, man, I’m going to shoot the shit out of you!” I’m saying to myself, “Fuck, I’m not giving him $20,” so I just gunned the car, which sort of nailed him to the headrest, and then I hit the brakes, which threw him into the windshield. He dropped the pistol on the floor. I picked the pistol up and said, “Now, you give me all your shit.” [Laughing] And I got nothing. I got like … you know, he had no money. I got the pistol and a pipe, and there was some dope in the pipe, so I did get that.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “I shot a million dollars’ worth of guitars into my arms.” Is that an exaggeration?
My guitar collection at the time would be worth at least a million dollars now. I wound up hawking the whole thing. As far back as high school, music was the most important thing, and drugs and alcohol were second. And they were always second, but there came a point in my life when I looked up one day and drugs were first.
Between 1993 and 1994, you racked up a bunch of drug and weapons charges, and never bothered to show up for any of your court appearances. Eventually, a judge sentences you to a year in jail. You wind up serving 60 days, and then they send you to rehab. Is that how it went down?
Sure. I mean, look: It stopped me, so there’s that. But my suggestion is the Betty Ford Center. If you can go, go. It stopped me. I don’t want anybody to construe this is me advocating law enforcement as the solution to drugs. The only solution to drugs is treatment. And treatment works for 10 percent of the people, but that’s a deceptive number. It works for 10 percent of the people the first time, and everybody that goes through, it fails. If they don’t die, and a pretty big percentage of people die; I don’t know what that number is, but it’s way higher than it needs to be. But everybody else that goes through and relapses exponentially increases their chances of getting clean if they don’t die.
In the wake of September 11, you release Jerusalem, which features a song called “John Walker’s Blues” about John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, a 20-year-old kid from Marin County. Inspired by Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, he converted to Islam when he was 16, went to study Arabic in Yemen for 10 months. He went back in 2000 and eventually found himself in Afghanistan. In the wake of September 11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and Lindh was captured on the battlefield and eventually sentenced to 20 years in federal prison with no hope of parole. Your song had the temerity to suggest that maybe he wasn’t the monster Fox News painted him as; maybe he was just a mixed-up 20-year-old kid. For that, people—mostly right-wing Tea Party/Fox News types—pretty much called you un-American. I’m wondering what was the blowback from that episode personally and professionally. Were there death threats?
Well, it was like that: People telling other people that it was un-American to say this or that. There was no blacklisting because there didn’t need to be. They managed to manipulate us into censoring ourselves.
What’s happened since? Did you ever get in touch with his family? Have you ever visited him or been in touch with him?
I’ve never visited him. And I don’t want to talk about that. I mean, I think I may have mentioned, you know, I had some contact with his family, but I don’t really like to talk about it because it’s sort of … I met his dad, I met his brother. Those are the people I met. And I met somebody that was hired by his defense team to go to Afghanistan to sort of retrace his steps. That’s the first person I met. He’s still in jail, man.
My son Justin just turned 31. They’re about the same age. That was what my motivation was. He’s exactly the same age as my son, and nobody else is going to write that song. He’s still … no one’s ever proven he did anything. What he did, most people would consider to be enough to be hung for, but it’s not a treason. He didn’t belong to our armed forces when he went to Yemen. He went to Yemen as a private citizen. By the time he went to Afghanistan, he had no intention of ever coming back here. And he joined the Taliban, he was armed, but he never fired a shot at any American. No one’s ever proven that, and I’m pretty sure, ’cause I’ve seen a lot more than a lot of other people have seen, just ’cause, trying to make myself feel better about shit people are saying about me. But he’s innocent as you can get of the things he’s accused of.
Why did you choose not to visit him?
I would have never had a chance to visit him. They’d never let me visit John Walker Lindh. They’d never ever allow that. They broke their promise and moved him away. Part of his plea deal was that he wouldn’t leave California, and they broke their promise and they took him away.
He’s in the supermax federal prison in Colorado, right?
Yeah. What do you think that plea deal was that they offered in exchange for him accepting 20 years with no parole? “We won’t put you into the general population with everybody else.” That’s what the deal was. They were worried about him becoming a martyr; they were worried about all kinds of shit. The main thing they were worried about was admitting that they were wrong and somebody had to pay, and we were OK with him being the one that paid. We were totally OK with a 20-year-old kid losing the rest of his life so we felt better about it.
Do you think that song and the ensuing controversy hurt your career?
Yeah. Now, these (late-night talk-show bookers and producers) will deny it, but these are the facts, and you can go back and check. I’ve never failed to book The Tonight Show or Letterman as long as … my first appearance on The Tonight Show was when Johnny Carson was hosting it. And I booked it every time I put a record out, and same with Letterman going back to the other network, and back before he moved into the prime-time spot. I’ve never failed to book Letterman or Leno during any record cycle, and sometimes played them twice. Plus, I always played Conan. When Jerusalem came out, I didn’t book any of those shows, and on the cycle for (2005’s) The Revolution Starts Now, I didn’t book any of those shows. I got no network television. You know, they ruined the Dixie Chicks. Their career in country radio ended. So, there was a blacklist.
Let’s talk about the new album. Why is called The Low Highway?
Because I was writing it on the road. I started writing about what I was seeing out the window. So, it’s a road record; it’s a road record about us. The Depression to me is a fable. It’s something way in the past, you know? And my father grew up during the Depression, but he was a little boy during the Depression. That’s how long ago it was, and he’s gone. So, I was looking out the window and seeing something that was as close to what happened during the Depression that’s happened since.
Where’s the divide between the songs Steve Earle writes about Steve Earle and songs Steve Earle sings in the voice of someone else—made up or otherwise—that might speak to Steve Earle’s life?
I don’t think there is a divide. I just think there’s two ways of skinning the cat. You know, I think I get into trouble sometimes because people assume I am always writing in the first person. Going back to my first record … Jimmy Guterman was the music critic for the Boston Phoenix in those days. And the only negative review that Guitar Town received that I ever saw—this is back when I still read reviews—the only negative review I ever read was Jimmy Guterman of the Boston Phoenix. He decided I was some sort of hyper-fucking redneck and saw my politics as being the guy in “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough).” And you know, there’s two things at work. One is him not being subtle enough or thinking enough that maybe it’s a character who’s speaking and not me. The second is me not being skilled enough to hammer that home. Other people construed it as that, too. Trust me. Toby Keith. Garth Brooks told me the reason he moved to Nashville was he heard Guitar Town, which makes me want to break out in assholes and shit all over myself. “Calico County” from the new record is pretty fucked up. It’s one of those ones that I worry about people misconstruing. It’s a parody of all those songs about how cool it is to be redneck.
If I’m not mistaken, I’m hearing you “gettin’ the Led out” on that one. I’m hearing intimations of “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Guilty as charged.
The lyrics for “Burnin’ It Down” go “Thinkin’ about burnin’ the Walmart down.” Discuss.
It was the first song written for this album, and it was written just because I had this thing about Walmart for several years. It goes back to the cleaning guy (for Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart) dying of a heart attack because they lock the cleaning guys in at night. The guy had a heart attack and they couldn’t find the keys to get him out. And that started me looking into Walmart’s business practices, and I finally decided they were fucking evil and needed to be … I don’t spend money there at all. We’re gonna have to make a decision that we’ll pay a little bit more for a flatscreen TV. It’s really that simple.
Burning it down would be more satisfying, but you’re right. “That All You Got”?
Wrote it for Treme.
Is it sort of like New Orleans shaking its collective fist at God in defiance after Katrina and saying, “Is that the best you can do?”
How do you get hooked up with David Simon? He calls you out of the blue, says he likes your music?
He’s a music fan, and he had used my music as far back as Homicide, and then he called me because he had written this character that he thought I would be able to play for The Wire, and I read for it and got the part. David Simon came to pick me up at the Baltimore airport when I came to shoot my first episode and took me straight to the set instead of my hotel, and we were friends ever since.
So, you were part of this landmark show that will not only be remembered as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, but a show that almost single-handedly changed public opinion about the war on drugs, to the point where most people think of it as a failure or waste of time and money at best, and at worst a racist war on the poor.
Yep. I’m recognized more for being on The Wire than I am for anything else I’ve ever done. And it will be that way for the rest of my life.
Let’s talk a little about Treme. You’ve been killed off. I know you didn’t want to get killed off. You were enjoying working on the show.
Yeah. I didn’t beg, though. I forget the kid’s name … The kid that played one of the main characters in the first year of The Wire read the script and found out he was getting killed, and he tried for two days to talk David Simon out of killing him, giving him all these reasons why his character should be allowed to live.
Did it work?
Nope. When you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s decided in a room, and they’ve got reasons for killing you.
“Down The Road Part 2”?
I wrote that when I was back in Nashville just long enough for it to really get on my fucking nerves. I needed to get out of there. It was one of the last things I wrote on the record. I can’t … I’ve lived there long enough. I’m done with it.
Too many ghosts?
It has nothing to do with ghosts—it has to do with Baptists. I just don’t want to live there.
You’ve lived in New York for the last several years. At the risk of asking a question everybody already knows the answer to, why did you move there?
I need to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands walking down my street. As white and heterosexual as I am, that makes me feel safe. So, I just really needed to live here.
“Remember Me” is for my (four-year-old) son. It’s just about the experience of being a father when you’re my age and … I wrote it after, you know, he has autism and he was diagnosed in April.
I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s going to be OK. We diagnosed it early. He’s getting treated.
You are married to alt-country singer Allison Moorer. You’ve now been married seven times. You must be an eternal optimist.
I am. And I had a child when I was 55—that’s pretty fucking optimistic by itself.
You are 58 years old. Seven wives, three kids, a play, a novel, a book of short stories, songs in more than 20 movies, acted on The Wire and Treme, 14 albums and three Grammys. If I gave you the last word, how would you sum it all up?
I don’t have a single record that I’m ashamed of. [Laughs] Not all my friends can say that.