Steve Earle didn't intend for his new album and upcoming novel -- both titled "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" -- to connect, but in hindsight he's not surprised they did.
"This is the longest I've ever taken to write a record," Earle, who's Grammy Award-winning 2009 release "Townes" was comprised entirely of Townes Van Zandt songs, tells Billboard.com. "I partially made 'Townes' to give myself time and energy to work on the novel. It never occurred to me it was going to give me more time to work on songs, for the next record, too. I didn't go into the studio knowing what this record was about or what it would be called...But when I got it all together and started listening to it, I realized the songs were kind of about the same thing the book was about, which is mortality."
Earle recorded "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive," which is due April 26 on New West Records with the book publishing May 12 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, over five days just before Thanksgiving with producer T-Bone Burnett at Village Recorder in West Los Angeles. Earle says he's been impressed with Burnett's recent productions, particularly the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss "Raising Sand" project, and also wanted to have somebody else's hands on the wheel on his 14th studio outing.
"I didn't want to be a producer this time," explains Earle, who recorded mostly live on the floor with Burnett's regular crew of players and did only minimal overdubs. "I didn't want to expend any energy doing that. I wanted to be a singer and a songwriter and concentrate on that. I wrote 'til the last minute and tweaked the lyrics right up until I sang them. I think that calculation worked. I'm pretty proud of this record."
Earle says the 11-track "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive," which takes its title from Hank Williams' posthumous 1953 hit, is "inadvertently" more country-flavored than his albums have sounded in awhile, thanks mostly to Greg Leisz's pedal steel and fiddle by Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins. The album includes "This City," which Earle wrote HBO's New Orleans series "Treme" -- in which he plays a recurring street musician -- and which he and Burnett recorded in New Orleans, with horns arranged and conducted by Allen Toussaint and backing vocals by actor Tim Robbins.
The album also features a duet with his wife, Allison Moorer, on "Heaven or Hell," and his versions of a pair of songs -- "God is God" and "I Am a Wanderer" -- that he wrote and produced for Joan Baez's 2008 album "Day After Tomorrow." "I asked her permission before I recorded them myself," Earle says. "They were just too good to leave lying around. I think 'God is God' is one of the best songs I've ever written."
Earle, who will be filming "Treme's" second season into late May, plans to take a "larger band that usual" on the road in early June, with a "revue kind of show" that will showcase Moorer and other members of the group. He'll perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as part of a first North American leg, then head to Europe. Further touring, Earle says, "depends on whether I'm in the third season of 'Treme' or whether they kill me or something. But I feel like I've got a lot less chance of getting killed on 'Treme' than I did on 'The Wire.'
Earle also plans an author's tour for the book, which is set in 1963 in San Antonio and focuses on a doctor who supports his heroin addiction by performing abortions -- and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, who he may or may not have traveled with a decade earlier.
Here is the track list for Steve Earle's "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive":
"Waitin' On The Sky"
"The Gulf of Mexico"
"God is God"
"Meet Me In The Alleyway"
"Every Part of Me"
"Lonely Are The Free"
"Heaven or Hell (with Allison Moorer)"
"I Am A Wanderer"