SANTA ANA, Calif. — Singer-songwriter Steve Earle says it wasn't until after he'd written and recorded all 11 tracks for his new album that he fully realized what he'd created: a unified set of songs all focused on mortality.
"I didn't know I was writing an album about anything, which is kind of unusual for me," says Earle, calling from the road in Missouri. "And then when T Bone (Burnett) and I were sequencing the record, I realized it was about something.
"I'm not talking about mortality in any kind of morbid way, I'm talking about death as a stage of life," Earle says of the album, which he subsequently named "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive," a title shared by his first novel, also released earlier this year.
The novel, on which Earle had worked off and on for eight years, is the story of a doctor haunted by the ghost of country legend Hank Williams, whose final single provides its title. And in hindsight, Earle says that writing the book and the death of his father three years ago had a great influence on the music he was creating.
"I lost my dad three years ago and that brings all that stuff pretty close," he says. "The generation before you is gone — you're next. And you watch it happen.
"I stood 10 feet away while the state of Texas executed a guy once," Earle says, referring to Jonathan Wayne Nobles, a death row inmate with whom he corresponded, and later memorialized in the song "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)." ''And even that didn't bring it home the way it did losing my dad.
"I guess in retrospect I was writing songs that everything — even the love song on this album — gets metaphysical. Every now and then you get into something so much that if affects everything in your life."
Even the new life that entered his world — his youngest son John Henry is now 18 months old — had him contemplating the passing of time that everyone experiences eventually.
"I'm having to think about it," Earle says of being 56 years old and a father again. "The concept of an Earle born in New York City fascinates me. The concept that bums me out is not being around for long enough with him. But I take better care of myself now than I ever have."
And, he says, the ticking of life's clock can be heard anywhere, anytime.
"We have a house in Woodstock that we bought mainly because Allison (his wife, singer Allison Moorer) needs a place in the country. I could live in New York City fulltime, but Woodstock's cool, our neighbors are Levon Helm and John Sebastian.
"But I bought a house in my mid-'50s, and I've been refinancing it down to a 15-year mortgage because I don't need a 30-year mortgage at my age."
There's a restless creativity to Earle these days that seems to keep him busier with each passing year. He tours large parts of each year, acts in HBO series such as "The Wire" and "Treme," and dedicates plenty of time to the political and social causes in which he's long invested his heart and his energy.
Earle has published volumes of short stories before, but the novel is his first, and though he doesn't come right out and say so, you sense that he's pleased by what he's accomplished with it.
"My editor was trying to trick me into writing a full-length novel, and he knew my favorite book was "Coming Through Slaughter," which is Michael Ondaatje's first novel," Earle says of the book's genesis. "It was about (jazz pioneer) Buddy Bolden, and nobody knows what Buddy Bolden sounds like because he was going crazy — his cheese had sort of slipped off his cracker by that time.
"Michael wrote this book that's based on a legend that Buddy Bolden disappeared for 30 days and when he came back he was never the same. So my editor suggested that I do something like that, something which had to do with music. I'd heard all my life that there was a doctor traveling with Hank Williams when he died, but he suddenly vanished when the police were called."
That set him thinking, and imagining that the doctor had settled in San Antonio, where Earle spent a good part of his childhood, where he was haunted by Hank's ghost, addicted to morphine and working as an illegal abortionist on the eve of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
With the book and the album both out this spring and both bearing the same title ("I figured I could capitalize on the confusion," he jokes wryly), Earle did short solo jaunts to promote both before launching into a national tour with his full electric band, the Dukes and Duchesses, with Moorer part of the band and also performing her own material, in early June.
"Her set is built into the show," Earle says of Moorer. "So don't show up late thinking there's an opening act. No. 1, if there was an opening act it would be my wife and that would (tick) me off. No. 2, we're three hours with an intermission, and you'd miss part of that."
After the current tour wraps up in November, Earle says he'll get back to work on a play he's writing called "Dangerous Songs," which explores folk singer and activist Pete Seeger's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1950s.
Like Seeger, Earle has never been shy about speaking out on political and social issues, whether it's fighting efforts to break unions, opposition to capital punishment or the upcoming presidential election.
Later on the day we spoke the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis in a decision made controversial because of questions of whether Davis had done the murder for which he'd been convicted.
"My deal with Troy Davis and everybody else like that is I'm opposed to the death penalty for anybody," Earle says. "It's a big deal, that possibility of a person being innocent and being executed. The factor that makes me angry is the deal where resistance to being really, really careful about this is about politicians not wanting to look like (wimps)."
"I am disappointed in the Obama presidency," he says. "From what I can tell from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, they're both the kind of moderates that (tick) me off. Rick Perry on the other hand, you know who Rick Perry reminds me of? He looks like Josh Brolin playing George W. Bush in (the movie) "W."
"I'll still vote for Obama," Earle says, adding that he'll do what he can to help progressives gain political ground, too. "I'll be involved somehow.
"I do care," he says, a simple statement that speaks to the sincerity and heart he displays in his music, his writing, and his activism. "I don't leave. I don't give up."