Songwriter talks outlaw-era Nashville, parenting a kid with autism and how fentanyl changed everything

Steve Earle came to Nashville in 1974, at the height of the outlaw country movement.

“It was a moment when the inmates were in charge of the asylum,” Earle said recently by phone. “It didn't last very long. It never does.”

Though he's heavily influenced by Townes Van Zandt, whom he met as a teen in Houston, Texas, Earle also learned his craft from a school of Nashville songwriters he described as “post-Bob Dylan.”

“I had really good teachers,” he said. “[Kris] Kristofferson had come and gone by the time I got there. Guy Clark and the people who taught me, they were all people who came there because Kris had been there before them, which gave them the idea that there was a place for them in Nashville. … I really see what I do as a recording artist going right back to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and what was happening in Texas and Tennessee simultaneously.”

Jennings holds a particularly special place in Earle's life, so it came as no surprise when Steve Earle & the Dukes' 2017 album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, arrived dedicated to the memory of Jennings, who died in 2002.

While Earle has explored just about every offshoot of Southern-incubated music in his career (folk, roots rock, blues), So You Wannabe an Outlaw traces a direct line back to those mid-'70s Nashville days. “It's a country record, on purpose,” Earle said. Tearjerkers such as “News from Colorado” and “Goodbye Michelangelo” (a tribute to Guy Clark, who died in 2016) are paired with “The Firebreak Line,” a boom-chicka-boom burner in which Earle inhabits the character of “a wildfire fightin' fool,” and “Fixin' to Die,” a “Hey Joe”-evoking throat-clearer that finds Earle singing as a murderous Death Row inmate (“Fixin' to die and I reckon I'm goin' to hell,” he growls).

On “This is How it Ends,” a duet with Miranda Lambert, Earle charts a relationship that starts as a fairy tale but spirals downward into heartbreak — a topic Earle knows well after living through the beginning and end of seven marriages, most recently with singer-songwriter Allison Moorer (the two divorced in 2014). These days, Earle said he's in no rush to jump into another committed relationship.

“I'm 63 and I like sitting wherever I want to when I go to the movies, I've discovered, and I can watch all the baseball I want to, so I'm probably more reluctant to give that up,” said Earle, who has called New York City home for more than 10 years. “And dates are kind of a bummer, I discovered before I gave up on them. People go out in social situations and stare at their phones. It's kind of boring.”

Plus, Earle said his 8-year-old son, John Henry, is his main focus. “Being a single dad and being single are not the same thing,” he said. “When I'm home I wanna spend as much time with him as I can, simply because I have to be gone so much to be able to make a living. I'm gonna pick him up here in about an hour and a half, and we'll go straight to the park, and then I'll fix dinner and we'll watch baseball on TV, and then I'll put him to bed and take him to school tomorrow. And then the day after that I fly out of town and meet the [tour] bus.”

In between two legs of a tour with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam, Earle & the Dukes are playing shows as part of the Copperhead Road 30th Anniversary Tour, which will make a stop at the Newport Music Hall on Sunday, June 10; during those dates, the band will perform Earle's 1988 album, Copperhead Road, in its entirety.

Earle has two older children from previous marriages, Ian and Justin Townes Earle (also an acclaimed singer-songwriter), but parenting the last several years has been a far different experience. While other parents struggle with how and when to introduce touch-screen tech to their kids, the devices have been a godsend to Earle.

“I've got a little boy with autism, and part of the way he communicates is with an iPad,” he said. “There's things about him we don't know yet because he can't tell us. He stopped talking when he was 19 months old. He seems to understand most of what's going on around him, but he's limited on what he can communicate back to us. He has some signs and uses a program on the iPad. … I can't imagine my life without [an iPad] as far as trying to be a father to John Henry.”

Plus, Earle is now sober — a claim he couldn't make in wilder days that culminated in jail time for drugs and weapons possession in 1993. “I wasn't always completely out of control when Justin was growing up, but I was some of the time, and I've been sober the whole time with John Henry,” he said. “Both Ian and Justin, it's not lost on them that I'm a little different dad now than I was then.”

After 23 years of sobriety, Earle still calls his sponsor and goes to meetings regularly. Those meetings give him a front-row seat to America's opiate problem, which has completely changed the experiences of addiction and relapse. Like many experts, Earle attributes the new, more-dangerous landscape to fentanyl, the highly addictive opioid initially used as a pain medication that's now being cut into heroin and contributing to an epidemic of overdose deaths.

At meetings over the years, people would relapse, or “go back out,” and then come back to talk about the experience. “Usually they would come back in and say, ‘Boy, it really sucks out there, and it was part of my recovery,'” Earle said. “Now, as often as not, when they go back out they die. Usually within days. We don't get them back. That's how dangerous it is out there.”

Earle's advice? Don't go back out. “It's not what you remember. It is different out there. It is worse. It's so much stronger,” he said. “Trust me, the first thing you'll probably know that I went out is when you read that I died.”