The title of Steve Earle‘s 16th studio album Terraplane is a nod to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson‘s “Terraplane Blues,” but the similarities end there. Recorded with his crack band the Dukes, the album — which debuted at No. 39 on the March 7 Billboard 200 — evokes the crunchy electric Texas blues-rock of ZZ Top and the fire of Chicago blues icon Howlin’ Wolf and resonates with the 60-year-old Earle’s literary, world-weary lyrics. (“King of the Blues” may be the first song of its genre to use the word “Dickensian” in a lyric.)
The singer-songwriter spoke to Billboard about his divorce from his seventh wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer (with whom he shares his 4-year-old autistic son), singing the blues on his new album, and why Taylor Swift is the real deal.
Where are you?
I’m in Woodstock. Allison [Moorer] and I have a house that’s getting ready to go away in the divorce, and this is where most of my guitars have lived.
Divorce is not easy.
No, it’s not. The only ones who profit are the lawyers.
I noticed that you thank Zeke Schein from Matt Umanov Guitars [a New York guitar shop]. He’s the guy who discovered what is arguably one of just three photos of the blues legend Robert Johnson that are known to exist. I was wondering if Zeke played a role in the origins of this album since the title seems to be referencing Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.”
Not directly. It had to do with the fact that — I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard Zeke play, but he knows the Delta stuff better than almost anybody I know. So I took a lot of guitar lessons from Zeke. As for the picture, I believe with all my heart that it’s him. It’s the eyes — those are the same eyes that are in the other two pictures, and I know that for a fact. You know, I did record “Terraplane Blues” during the session. It’s coming out as a 10-inch single for Record Store Day. My version will be on one side, and Johnson’s original version will be on the other. I played it in standard tuning in A, and I’m pretty proud of it.
You’ve intimated that your decision to record a blues album is connected to your divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, but you’ve also said, “It’s more complicated than that.”
I made the album for the same reasons that I made the bluegrass record. I wrote a couple of pretty songs and they were blues songs. And I had a band that could do justice to the music. I’m not one to ignore the signs when they become un-ignorable.
Despite the reference to Johnson, this is not an album of Delta blues. It’s electric blues, Texas and Chicago style.
There was a definite template that we had in mind sonically and that was Howlin’ Wolf Records, the first two ZZ Top albums and Canned Heat and The Electric Flag. I was in a blues band in 1968 when I was 13, and a lot of great records came out: The first Johnny Winter record, The Progressive Blues Experiment; Muddy Waters‘ Electric Mud and Super Session with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills. I got kicked out of that band because I wanted to do a Donovan song.
Would you call Terraplane an autobiographical album?
I think you could make that mistake. I heard somebody say once that they knew for a fact that Townes Van Zandt wrote “Pancho and Lefty” because the guru Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] and [evangelist] Billy Graham were both appearing in Dallas at the same time and that’s what the song was about. Townes used to say that, but it was a joke. The song is about him. All of my records are autobiographical when it comes down to it. The point is, it doesn’t matter how much of the album is about me. What matters is how much my audience really likes it. That’s what the job is.
One of the highlights of the record is “Better Off Alone.” As a guy who has been married and divorced seven times, is that something you think about a lot?
It goes through my head when it goes through my head, but I’d rather think about baseball and p—y. [Laughs]
Would you give marriage another shot?
I’m done with it. I got married a lot in the ’80s, but after that, I didn’t get married for a long time on purpose. For some reason, I thought [my relationship with Allison] was different. And it didn’t work out. We were together eight years, and by the time we’re divorced it’ll probably be 10 years.
You have a 4-year-old son, John Henry.
It’s really weird, because we seem to raise the kid together just fine. It’s the nuts and bolts of divorce where we aren’t necessarily getting along.
It can’t be easy for two touring musicians to raise a child.
Since the beginning of November, John Henry has been at my house more than Allison’s because I’m off the road in the winter. I’m getting ready to be back on the road for the better part of nine months. I’ve never been bummed out about going on the road, but being away from him is really hard. He’s little and he has autism, so I think he needs me for a lot of reasons. And I need him because he’s kind of all I’ve got. And I actually get homesick for New York way more than I ever got homesick for Tennessee. But, you know, going through a divorce at this age, I’m going to be on the road for a while because I need the money.
Where will the road take you?
We’ll tour in the States until Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October. And then after a short break, we’ll go to Europe. And that’ll go until Thanksgiving or just after. And then Shawn Colvin and I are going to make a record. And then I’ll go back out with the band at least to go to Australia around next April. It’ll be a year. And then when I get back from that, Shawn and I will go out for the record.
You’re also working on a musical.
It’s [based on the 2007 album] Washington Square Serenade. It’ll be a very New York musical. It’s based on the idea that there’s 20,000 people buried underneath Washington Square Park — and therefore the park’s pretty haunted. The characters in the play are all buskers and chess players, and then the protagonist is a kid who dropped out of NYU and busks in the park and hangs out with the chess players and gives walking tours of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park as part of his living, which is how the audience learns about the history of New York and the history of the park.
You’ve done quite a bit of acting. You’ve appeared in The Wire. You’re about to be seen in Dixieland, and recently, you got great reviews for your work in The World Made Straight. Is there any connection between your acting and the music you make?
I’m a way better live performer than I was before I started acting. And I brought a lot of stuff from live performance to my acting. [With both] you’re trying to connect to an audience, and that means you have to give it up. You can’t be afraid to let people know something about you.
When I listen to “Go Go Boots Are Back” off the new album, I can’t help but see Iggy Azalea. Is that song a statement about pop music today?
Yeah, stuff goes around. It’s me trying to be Billy Gibbons more than anything else. Billy has this hipster jargon of his own that he started inventing even before ZZ Top. It’s me emulating that sort of sensibility, because he’s one of my heroes.
So it’s not really a statement about how music sometimes takes a backseat to fashion on the pop charts?
The dress code’s not important. Look, it’s addressing the phenomena that you’re talking about, but it’s not judging it. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music. I listen to Bud Powell more than I listen to anything else. I listened to Taylor Swift’s new record for a while when it came out. I haven’t listened to it since, but she really is a singer/songwriter. When somebody is doing that job of writing about herself in a way that everybody else can say, “Oh, that’s happened to me,” that’s a success to me, and I will respond to it.
You’ve never been afraid to speak out on political matters. What’s your opinion of Obama’s presidency?
In the long run he’s not even close to my ideal candidate, but I don’t regret voting for him one bit because we’ve got health care in this country. And I think we’re still gonna have health care if we have eight years of a Republican president. We won’t have legal and safe abortions, but we will have health care. It’s like the Civil Rights Act; it’s not gonna go away. There’s no place to go now with health care in this country but forward.
An edited version of this story will appear in the March 14 issue of Billboard.