The Last Word: Steve Earle on Songwriting Secrets, Why He's Been Married Seven Times

The country-rock maverick also talks raising a son with autism, the appeal of New York and the magic of refried beans

Steve Earle calls from his hotel in Portland, Maine, on his day off. But he's not out sightseeing today – instead, he's doing his own laundry. "I don't mind," says Earle, 63. "I kinda like it." Nearly four decades into his career, the songwriter keeps his operation small and lean, with the freedom to do whatever he wants – whether it's write novels, act or record albums in whatever genre he pleases. 

"It's always been on my own terms," says Earle, who in June will launch the "LSD Tour," a summer amphitheater run with fellow troubadours Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam, and host Camp Copperhead, a five-day songwriting workshop in upstate New York. "My career maybe isn’t as big as it could be. I don’t play arenas. I played arenas in Canada for a moment in the Eighties. But it would be unseemly for me to complain too much. ... I still feel lucky to be able to make a living doing something that I love. And I still make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist." 

What's an important rule you live by?
That anybody else's opinion of me is none of my fuckin' business. That's a big one, especially in my business. I don't read reviews; I won't read this. If [critics] don't like you, you can't help but take it personally, because you make art and art is you. And if they do like you, that's kind of bad for you too. I do appreciate when people write about me, though, because being a singer-songwriter in this day and age is like being a bluegrass or jazz musician. It's not part of the pop-music mainstream anymore.

Does that make you a little sad?
It's kind of cool, actually. I was lucky I got in at the tail end, and I have a career that's way bigger than it would be if I had to come along and be on independent labels my whole life like my son [Justin Townes Earle] has. It's a good thing he doesn't tend to ask me for advice, because I wouldn't know what to tell him.

How do you define what you do?
I always say my job was invented by Bob Dylan, and he took all the air out of the room. I'm a firm believer that rock & roll only becomes an art form because of the lyrics. If it hadn't been for Bob Dylan wanting to be John Lennon and John Lennon wanting to be Bob Dylan, it wouldn't have been cranked up to the level of literature that makes it OK for rock & roll to be taken seriously.

What's your favorite city in the world?
New York. I can't wait to get home there right now, and I was never that way when I lived in Tennessee.

A lot of people who move here from the country think New York is too hectic.
Yeah, those people are called rednecks.

You grew up in San Antonio. What's the most San Antonio thing about you?
If I walk into a Mexican restaurant and I see one single black bean, I turn around and walk out. They don't belong in Mexican restaurants except in the Caribbean, but it's become the thing now. I want pinto beans, refried in lard.

What have you learned about marriage at this point in life?
Oh, God, I don't know anything! [Earle has married and divorced seven times.] Don't do it, or get a prenup. The truth is, I still sort of think prenups are for pussies. I kind of wish I had one a couple of times down the road, though.

Why do you think you've gotten married so many times?
Well, my therapist says that I intentionally choose women that I can't succeed in a relationship with because I really want to be alone. And I hope that's not true, because it sounds like a lot of work. A lot of it has to do with, I fell in love a lot, and marriage was the only logical conclusion. I hope I've convinced myself that that's not necessary.

"I don't want anyone to say 'Steve Earle tweeted' anything. I don't ever want to hear that sentence, ever."

What have you learned about being a father?
When I was raising Justin and Ian, I wasn't a terrible dad, but there were times I was in the fuckin' bathroom when I should've been engaged with them. It's not lost on my grown sons how much of a better father I am now. [Earle and ex-wife Allison Moorer have an eight-year-old son, John Henry.] They're witnessing me be a better father than I was to them, and that's gotta hurt a little.

What's fatherhood like for you now?
John Henry has autism, so things are a little different with him. But he's pretty cool. I have friends that come to see John Henry because it makes them feel better because he's just kind of all love. He's my favorite person to hang out with at this point in my life.

A friend told me he sat next to you at a Springsteen show and saw you writing lyrics on your phone.
It's absolutely true that I write most of my lyrics on my phone. Then it goes straight to my computer. A lot of people are afraid of the cloud. I know they're watching me; I don't give a fuck. I'm not on Facebook, though. And I've never sent a tweet, but that's a vanity thing: I don't want anyone to say "Steve Earle tweeted" anything. I don't ever want to hear that sentence, ever.

You're hosting Camp Copperhead, a songwriting retreat, in upstate New York soon. What do you like to drill into your students?
That people don't really care about your experience in and of itself – they only care about the part of your experience that they can relate to. I wrote a song called "Little Rock 'n' Roller" on my first record. Johnny Cash came up to me at a fundraiser and said, "I really like that song," which was a big deal for me. And then about six weeks later, I was at a truck stop and a guy told me he liked it. And it clicked: Johnny Cash and the truck driver both related to that song because they have a common experience, which is traveling and being away from their kids. It doesn't matter if you're a truck driver or a hillbilly singer when it comes to that.