Steve Earle has never exactly been Mr. Upbeat. Yet his new album is still a landmark in fatalism, starting with the title it shares with his recently published first novel: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" (New West Records). He'll show off its songs with a Saturday night performance in Durham.
"Well, I hope it's not in a negative way," Earle says of his album's grim vibe. "It definitely ended up being about spirituality, in the sense of mortality being something that everybody's got to deal with. Most all these songs were written since my dad died three years ago. And I knew I'd have more time to write than on any record I've ever made simply because my last record (the 2009 tribute set "Townes") was all Townes Van Zandt songs. So I had an opportunity to push the poetics hard past the decimal point, let the lyrics redefine themselves."
Both the album and book take their title from the last song Hank Williams ever recorded, a posthumous No. 1 hit for the country icon in 1953. The book is set in early-1960s San Antonio, where a doctor stripped of his license is being haunted by Williams' ghost.
While Williams doesn't figure quite as directly into the album, it's just as mortality-obsessed. Produced with spare elegance by "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" godfather T-Bone Burnett, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" sets Earle's earthy narratives to spare roots-rock arrangements. Death figures into almost every song, even the devotional "Every Part of Me": "I can't promise anything/Except that my last breath will bear your name."
About the closest Earle comes to optimism is on the closing "This City," an ode to New Orleans that declares, "This city will never drown." That song has a companion piece, "The Gulf of Mexico," an actual sea chantey that makes a nod to Earle's own history on the Gulf Coast.
"I grew up in that part of the country and even worked on a shrimp boat for four or five months before figuring out that was not for me," Earle says. "It's not a good gig for guitar players. Your hands get cut up and the shrimp make an enzyme that prevents them from healing. So you're sore all the time. I'd come off the boat after a week with some money, but my hands would be swollen up like the Michelin Man. It's not the best day job for an aspiring singer/songwriter."
Earle has been on the road for much of 2011 touring as Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses), featuring his wife/duet partner Allison Moorer. Their 1-year-old son, John Henry Earle, has accompanied them, making it what Earle calls "a dogs-and-kids kinda tour."
This is the 56-year-old Earle's second time around as a father. But he admits he's a lot more clear-eyed now than he was with older sons Justin Townes (who played Carrboro's Cat's Cradle last December) and Ian.
"When Justin was this age, I was pretty much there because that was before I was touring a lot," Earle says. "Then as I got older, I was more absent. But I was also gone a lot when I was at home, you know. Then my second son, Ian, I was gone the entire time because his mom and I split when he was really tiny. He and I did not know each other until he was 5 or 6 years old. With John Henry now, I'm a lot more present, sober and here. With my older sons, there's still a lot of stuff to work through with them."