Singer-songwriter Steve Earle is alone again at District Live

District Live partners with Savannah Music Festival to bring one of the most celebrated American songwriters of his generation to the stage.

Steve Earle began his career as a country artist with his critically acclaimed 1986 debut album, “Guitar Town,” but quickly expanded into everything from rock ‘n’ roll, folk, blues and bluegrass. Despite a reputation as an outlaw with substance abuse problems, stormy marriages, and rocky relationships with record labels, Earle has recorded dozens of albums and written songs for artists such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, The Pretenders, EmmyLou Harris, Joan Baez, and many others.

Earle’s 1988 hit “Copperhead Road” was named the official state song of Tennessee, and in 2020 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

When it comes to touring, Earle has a surprisingly long history of performing in Savannah.

“I’m going back to Tim Coy’s Night Flight Café over there on the river,” Earle said during an interview via Zoom. “I had a rockabilly band in the early 80s. A lot of the bands in the Carolinas and Nashville that played original material played there…Savannah was a regular stop for pretty much everyone.

Earle and his bandmates often crashed at the infamous Chateau Debris, a carriage house located in an alley near Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House. Mrs. Wilkes was Earle’s favorite place to eat at the time, and he asked if it still existed. I pointed out that while this is the case, lines often stretch all the way to the end of the street.

“I think one of the weakest things in the American character is our unwillingness to stand in line,” Earle said. “Everywhere else in the world people shut up and queue up. The places where the lines are, those are the beautiful things.”

Earle said that although he is heterosexual, he has always appreciated Savannah’s embrace of LGBTQ communities, a rare quality in the ’80s that made Savannah a favorite stop on tours.

“Anywhere I see a mixed-race, same-sex couple walking hand in hand, I feel safe,” says Earle.

Earle’s next release is a live album out July 12 called “Alone Again (Live).” Since his band, The Dukes, disbanded, Earle has been touring as a solo act. It’s a throwback to his early days playing acoustic guitar in coffee shops.

“This is the continuation of a tour that started last summer, and the live album is a documentation of that first leg of the tour,” Earle explains. “The live album is very similar to the show you hear in Savannah.”

Earle was a protégé of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and played in their bands when he was a young man in the 1970s. In the years since, Earle has shared his accumulated songwriting knowledge while mentoring new generations of songwriters through workshops like Camp Copperhead or a recent stint on the Outlaw Country Cruise.

“Guy was more of a hands-on teacher, even though he probably wouldn’t have thought of it that way,” Earle said. “You could ask him questions and he would answer them. He showed me how he put things on a page. He also tried to trick me and offered me a rhyming dictionary which he didn’t believe in at the time, in the mid-seventies, but believe me, at the end of his life he used a damn rhyming dictionary. I use a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, and have done so for a long time.”

Earle added, “Townes gave me a copy of ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ and told me to go read it.”

One of the important lessons Earle gives his students is to be a voracious reader first and foremost.

“You can’t write if you don’t read, and what I teach is songwriting as literature, because I’m a post-Bob Dylan songwriter,” Earle said. “It’s the idea that there are other people in the Village besides Bob who are writing their own anthems. They all read the same French modernist poets, but everyone else kept writing songs that sounded like Woody Guthrie, and Bob wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and adapted that.

“I believe the lyrics elevated rock ‘n’ roll to an art form. Without Bob it just becomes songs about cars and girls and it’s just a subgenre of pop music and it doesn’t become a high art form. Yes, he deserved the Nobel Prize for literature, and it is literature – the best literature of the time when I was growing up.

Did you know that Steve Earle also writes songs for plays and musicals?

As someone who has long harbored a reputation for bad behavior and being an outlaw (although a 1994 arrest in Nashville for heroin possession led to rehab and a clean slate), it may surprise many fans that Earle’s current passion musical theatre. Earle has written music for several plays and is currently working with playwright Daisy Foote on a musical adaptation of Horton Foote’s 1983 screenplay and film, “Tender Mercies.”

“Theater has always been my favorite art form for many reasons,” says Earle. “My grandmother was a seamstress and wardrobe mistress for a drama department at a college in northeast Texas called Lon Morris College. They had a great theater department; that’s where Tommy Tune came from. They performed a musical, a play and Shakespeare every year. They had their own theater in the middle of nowhere in a dry county.”

Drama was also the only class in high school that didn’t throw out a young rebellious Earle.

“I didn’t get kicked out of drama or science,” Earle recalls. “The science teacher had the best local country band in San Antonio named George Chambers. They were the only two guys who didn’t kick me out of their classes.”

Earle eventually had his own theater company, BrokenAxe, in Nashville.

“I didn’t really think I wanted to write musicals so I moved to New York. I had come to believe that I hated musical theater and it turned out that the only person I hated was Andrew Lloyd Webber, well, besides ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’..’”

Earle distinguishes between Webber, whose work he considers opera, and American book musicals, in which characters burst into music between dialogues.

“We invented that art form, just like the blues and bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll,” Earle explains.

However, Earle has recently gotten into opera, thanks to his friend singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Earle’s 14-year-old autistic son, John Henry, had become interested in classical music, so Earle wanted to see his first opera. Rufus and his father, Loudan Wainwright III, took Earle to see Richard Wagner’s “Tannhauser” at the Metropolitan Opera.

“It was a journey and I was blown away by it because it is visually stunning,” Earle said.

Earle has written so many memorable songs for himself and other major artists that the question arises: are there any songs he would like to write himself?

“It’s indirectly related through Rufus, but ‘Hallelujah,’ and no matter how many times it dies, there’s a reason for it,” Earle replied. “I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen, but I guess that song comes from the fact that I’m a songwriter, but most of the time it would scare me to even think about writing a song that’s essentially about songwriting, And that is it.”

Earle also cites many Beatles and Rolling Stones songs that he wishes he had written himself, and his favorite Bob Dylan song is “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

“It’s one of those things where I grew up in an era where there were so many great songwriters and great songs, and that sets the bar high,” Earle said.

With Earle’s extensive catalog of songs, there are probably plenty of artists who would love to write one of his songs as well. “Galway Girl” from the 2000s Transcendental bluesis, for example, regularly requested at Irish pubs and weddings.

“Well, there’s a lot of musicians in Ireland who want to kill me too because I wrote that song,” Earle said, laughing.

If you go >>

What: Steve Earle

When: 8 p.m., June 13

Where: District Live, 400 W. River St.

Cost: $60