About midway through Steve Earle's recently published novel, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive — a grim, mystical journey to San Antonio in 1963 that is part Bound to Glory and part Breaking Bad — country icon Hank Williams strives to explain himself.
It's Williams' ghost, but he inhabits the pages of Earle's story in a manner that is eerily earthly.
"I'm only here because it's your dream," Williams tells the book's morphine-addled protagonist, Doc Ebersole. "And you're dreamin' that you're back in Louisiana, and in Louisiana I was alive. That is ... if you call this livin'."
The scenario summoned a recollection from the 2003 Earle biography Hardcore Troubadour (subtitled The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle). It's a passage where Earle, in the depths of crack addiction in 1994, is visited by his muse, Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt, himself a merchant of more than a few nasty habits, in a last-ditch intervention.
"I must be bad if they're sending you," Earle tells the iconic inspiration who, 15 year later (and more than a dozen years after his death) would inspire Townes, Earle's most recent Grammy- winning album.
Art imitating life? More like the afterlife imitating a near-death reckoning. For Earle, it all becomes part of a musical tapestry that draws on tradition, politics, love, war, salvation and more than a little irony. He emphasized irony when he played a sold-out concert at the Lexington Opera House two summers ago by pointing out that although Townes was one of his best-received recordings, it was the only one in which he didn't write any of the songs.
Earle returns to the Opera House this week on another artistic crest. It comes on the heels of a new recording, also titled I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The names and nuances differ from the written page to the recorded groove, but the themes of mortality and, as Earle writes in the liner notes, "death as a mystery rather than a punctuation mark," are largely the same.
Earle pulls out the big guns for the album. T Bone Burnett was enlisted as producer (a major shift, because Earle has produced or co-produced all of his music since 1987's landmark Exit 0), horns charts were arranged and conducted by the great New Orleans musical ambassador Allen Toussaint (including the regal brass that brings the Treme affirmation This City to life at the album's conclusion), and a vast backup ensemble includes a host of gifted contemporaries (Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins; longtime Burnett rhythm henchmen Dennis Crouch and Jay Bellerose; even Earle's wife, acclaimed singer-songwriter Allison Moorer).
But the songs all have a ghostly intimacy to them, from the roughneck legacy riding shotgun through the sea chanty-charged The Gulf of Mexico to the chronicles of an immigrant laborer striving for identity, dignity and freedom in I Am a Wanderer.
Ghosts and spirits — Earle seems to be surrounded by them. In real life, Earle's father died in late 2007, just as he began writing the songs from I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
My father "died at the age of 74," Earle told the British newspaper The Telegraph in March. "But the last few months when he was ill was a period when I was thinking a lot about the themes that would come out in the book and the record. Both are about the same things, really, and that's why they have the same title. I was trying to push the poetics of the lyrics as far to the right of the decimal point as possible."
Then come the make-believe spirits. In his most recent pretend-life on the extraordinary HBO drama series Treme, Earle played a character named Harley Watt who unexpectedly (and violently) met his demise on the second season's finale, which aired last month.
"I had a hint in the off-season," Earle told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in June. "I sent David (Simon, Treme's creator/producer) an email. I was just being paranoid and trying to make sure I had a job, saying, 'Hey, do I have a job this season?' And I got an email back saying, 'Yeah, we'll work you in, but we have a sad story planned for you. You're going to make people cry."
Luckily, Earle's Lexington return will be a more joyous occasion. Unlike his Lexington concerts in 2008, when he was accompanied by a DJ, and 2009, a solo acoustic show, Tuesday's concert will mark the return — or rather revision — of his longstanding band, The Dukes.
On the Opera House stage will be an essentially new lineup that features onetime Son Volt guitarist George Masterson; Masterson's violinist/mandolinist wife, Eleanor Whitmore; Moorer, who also was a support player on the 2008 and 2009 shows; and two Duke mainstays, bassist Kelly Looney and drummer Will Rigby. The music, true to the atmosphere of I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, will resemble the hoedown-style Americana of Earle's new songs more than the rock-heavy staples favored by The Dukes of yesteryear.
In short, if ghosts do indeed sing sad Western songs, they had better be set for a merry revival on Tuesday.