Steve Earle on Writing Music and Acting Off-Broadway and His Love of 'Old-Fashioned Musicals'

Julieta Cervantes
Steve Earle

Steve Earle didn’t just write the score for Richard Maxwell’s new play Samara, which opens tonight off-Broadway at New York’s Mezzanine Theatre: the country-rock renegade is also the play’s narrator.  

Earle is certainly no stranger to pursuits beyond songwriting: he’s delved into everything from novel-writing (a memoir and a second work of fiction are on the way) to appearing on screen (acting in The Wire and Treme). But in fact, he moved to New York from Nashville back in 2005 with dreams of working in theater.

It’s clear he’s well-suited to the task: at a recent rehearsal, as director Sarah Benson tried out various levels of sound and instrumentation, Earle weighed in with confidence: “That’s not dramatic enough,” he told a musician playing the Uillean pipes. “Just go for it—full metal jacket." The singer-songwriter spoke to Billboard about tackling a theater piece, his forthcoming new album, and his love of musicals.

Is this the first piece you’re acting in on stage?

Yes, with the exception of The Exonerated -- but you’re on book for that whole thing, so that doesn’t really count. I did do one monologue at a benefit performance for the theater company that I had in Nashville. One of our company members read this piece called Vampire Monologues, which was pretty funny. We did it every Halloween to raise money and it was about a redneck biker vampire who had decided after being a vampire for a while it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be. 

It was a lot of fun. At that point the only acting I’d done was the first season of The Wire, and I was playing a redneck recovering addict -- so that doesn’t require any acting, really, and I did every scene with Andre Royo, who is a badass and didn’t let me get away with anything. I would be talking to a girl or a grip, and he’d be like, ‘Man, come on, we’re going to do this -- I ain’t going to be at it all day.’ He kept me pretty honest about it.

Are you nervous at all to finally be making your off-Broadway debut in New York?

It’s scary as hell, but that’s part of the deal. It's not about aspiring to be a polymath as much as it is trying to do things outside of your comfort zone. It kind of keeps you from coagulating; it gets hard to get up and make art that's vital over and over again as your get older.

How did you get the idea to write the music for a play?

There are quite a few musicals I've liked. I think the first was [the 2005 production of] Sweeney Todd and I liked the idea of the performers playing their own instruments. I like old-fashioned musicals. Musicals like Carousel were really good plays and they had really good songs in them. And the songs were the pop mainstream -- they held up on their own.

Hamilton's everything it’s cracked up to be -- I’ve seen it 3 times. I saw Hadestown [by Anaïs Mitchell] and it blew my f--king mind; artistically, it’s every bit as successful as Hamilton. Spring Awakening, that musical was great. Duncan Sheik is someone I knew from the record business who did that, and didn’t get his ass kicked.

I try to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not lost on musical theater people that we in the record business did not give a f--k about them when the record business was booming. It also occurred to me that I’m a really good songwriter, and I live in New York and I love living in here, and it just doesn’t make any sense not to try -- even though a lot of people better than me have gotten their asses kicked trying to do it. I just can’t help it. So I started with the process of trying to put together a musical based on Washington Square Serenade, which is the record I made the year that I moved to New York. I’ve got the story and I’ll probably write the book myself.

You wrote Samara's score using instruments that you don’t play: the Uillean pipes and piano harp. You must love to challenge yourself.

Yeah, it’s really hard. Uillean pipes are peculiar to Irish music, and only 40 people around the world play them -- and only 15 play them well.  I had to do the arrangements like I’m in the James Brown school. I don’t write scores. I have been a band leader for a long time with musicians way better than me that read [music]. I try to not be self-conscious about it.

A lot of what I do at this point of my life is all post-recovery stuff. I didn’t do anything but write songs before I got clean and then shortly after I got clean I started writing short stories and published a collection of fiction and then a play. I staged my play Karla -- an old-fashioned one act about Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War -- when I first moved to New York, at the Culture Project.

On the topic of your day job: what can we expect from your next record?

This new one coming out on June 16 is the least political record I ever made, ironically, because I knew what I wanted it to be. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be elected, and while not my favorite candidate, I voted for her and I thought I knew what this country was going to be for the next 4 years, and I’d written a whole record. Then Trump got elected. I thought, ‘Well, should I do something else?’ But I said no, this is about where I come from.

The record is called So You Want to Be An Outlaw and it’s basically me channeling Waylon Jennings. It’s based on that moment, which is really where I come from, what happened in Texas right before I moved to Nashville and what happened in Nashville after I got there. There’s duets with Willie Nelson, with Johnny Bush and with Miranda Lambert.