Steve Earle says he was once a proud holder of a cough syrup prescription written by Elvis's physician, Dr. Nick. In his debut novel, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, he explores the life of Doc Ebersole, morphine addict and doctor to Hank Williams.
What led you to Doc Ebersole?
Working in Nashville, I knew musicians who knew Hank Williams, and there were always stories about a doctor traveling with him when he died, one who disappeared before the authorities arrived. Ends up, he wasn't really a doctor; he was a quack who thought he could cure alcoholics by treating them with chloral hydrate, which is like a really strong barbiturate. But the idea that he was a doctor was more interesting to me. And I'm a recovering heroin addict, so it starts from there.
This is a new form for you. Were there novels you turned to for inspiration?
Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter was a big one. It's about the coronet player Buddy Bolden. Legend has it, he disappeared for 30 days in 1907, and when he came back he was never the same. The novel speculates what happened during those 30 days. My book was patterned on that.
Abortion either ruins or saves lives in this book. Is it a personal, political, or spiritual issue for you?
I'm a political creature. What I believe about abortion is all over this book, and what I believe is that it's taking a life, and life is sacred. But I also believe that men shouldn't tell women what to do with their bodies. It's that simple. I grew up in Texas, and I got my girlfriend pregnant. We were both 14 years old. For most people, there was nowhere to go to get a safe abortion. But my girlfriend's father was a clinical psychologist at a hospital, so she got an abortion, no problem. That's Doc Ebersole's attitude. He's supporting his habit, and he's rationalizing the fact that he's doing something he was raised to believe was wrong. And it was definitely illegal. So some of Doc's rationalization is what I believe about abortion, which is complicated. He's me a lot, and he can't help but be.
You've got a record of the same name coming out this spring. Is it a companion piece to the novel?
Normally I know what I'm going to call an album when I start recording it. There's a title track or I have a bone to pick. This time I didn't. I was just writing the best songs I could write. I recorded it in five days with T Bone Burnett. When I got it all done, I thought, "Oh my God, this album is about the same fucking thing the book is about." It ended up being about mortality, an experience we all have to go through. Not a final experience. Not necessarily a period, but a comma.