It was a case of art imitating life when Steve Earle found himself cast as a recovering addict on The Wire, the alt-country troubadour having suffered for years from heroin addiction before finally going clean 13 years ago. "It didn't require any acting," he says of his part. "It's a recovering redneck addict.
"Critics loved [the HBO series], but the audience lagged behind until this year. Now I can't walk down the street. People don't know my music, but they'll yell at me about the show."
Earle, who has also made an appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and has begun doing film work, still enjoys music the most. Actually, it was the convergence of these two worlds that led him to the sparse, organic-sounding Washington Square Serenade, produced by John King of Dust Brothers fame.
At first, Earle had recorded new material on his laptop, using beats.
"Originally what I thought I was making were demos, and then I figured out [that] maybe this is the record," Earle says. "It was a lot of organic, folky instruments banjo, guitar but I was doing it with beats, and it was sort of a neat thing."
That's when Earle contacted King with the idea of covering Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," which is The Wire's theme song, recorded every season by different artists. The one track, a sort of audition to see if King and Earle could work together, was used during the critically acclaimed crime show's final season, which ended earlier this year.
As for 2007's Washington Square Serenade, it won Earle his second Grammy Award in as many record releases. Now the singer is on the road playing solo, with wife Allison Moorer opening the show and joining him on stage for a few songs.
Not only does Washington Square Serenade take Earle into new territory from a stylistic standpoint, but its optimism is new, too. The 53-year-old singer-songwriter attributes the positive outlook to his marriage to Moorer and relocation to Greenwich Village. It's a feeling that may catch his audience off-guard.
"Well, mostly, if I piss people off, I can tell I'm doing something right," says Earle, "but also I've got an audience who has stayed with me for over 20 years. Even though my loyalties lie with them, I have to keep myself interested in it, too.
"I've been lucky to lead a loud rock band, a bluegrass band, and then this record is acoustic over beats. For the most part, my audience has been willing to take all of the detours with me, and I'm really proud of them."