Along with a handful of other rockers based in Texas and Nashville in the eighties, Steve Earle helped merge folk and country into alt-country, an antidote to the sugary (and conservative) pop that passed for mainstream country. Then he got hooked on heroin and landed in prison. Since recovering, he’s opened up a sideline career as a writer, with the story collection Doghouse Roses, a novel-in-progress, and a play about to make its New York debut: Karla, about Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.
How did you get into playwriting?
Karla is my first play, so I had to figure out how to do it, and it got out of hand and became a theater company before it was over with. It was like everything else in my life.
And now it’s opening in New York.
When I used to visit New York, I didn’t go see bands because it’s a little too much like going to work. So I’d go see a play—or a baseball game. Right now, it’s probably the best time for theater that it’s been in a while. With Doubt and The Pillowman, there’ve actually been a couple of real plays on Broadway.
And you’ve relocated here as well.
I fell in love with somebody that had a job, and all of a sudden I could afford to live in New York. The election broke my heart, and I need to be able to walk out my front door and see a mixed-race, same-sex couple walking down the street holding hands.
It’s a political play, but it isn’t exactly activist theater.
I’m known as a protest singer, but when I die they’ll figure out I wrote more songs about women than anything else. If you just hurl rhetoric at an audience, it doesn’t work very well. I’m trying to deal with what the death penalty does to us. Period. I’m not trying to save people on death row. I’m trying to keep me from going to hell.
Why did you start writing books and plays after you got out of prison?
I didn’t have to wake up in the morning and find $500 worth of dope every day; that’s a huge amount of energy there. And there wasn’t always a melody lying around, and I was really paranoid about writer’s block.
Are you worried about being branded a dilettante?
This medium lives or dies by reviews. So this is scary, and it’s different from a play going up anywhere else in the fucking world. I’m scared shitless, which is good for me.
By Steve Earle.
45 Below Theatre.
October 20 through November 13.