For a relatively prolific songwriter, Steve Earle has maintained an unusually high slugging percentage since getting out of prison. NEach of his four last albums has been a winner, and despite the obvious lack of chart-toppers, there has been little if any filler amongst some of the finest compositions of his troubled career.
Of course, nobody knocks it out of the park every time at bat, and the hard-swinging country outlaw has been overdue for a few whiffs and foul tips. But his latest recording, Transcendental Blues, is worse than a strike-out. It's more like a flat-out forfeit.
The creatively tapped Earle is going through the motions, rewriting the same old tough-hombre narratives with the expected poignant twists to placate the fans.
He could probably make an easy living by continuing to turn out generic tunes about rough-living outlaws. Yet Earle spent too much time hanging around Townes Van Zandt not to know that if you're in the heartsong business and your heart isn't in it, it's time to look for a new line of work. Don't count on another studio album from our boy for at least two years.
"These last three or four years have been a really interesting time for me artistically," explains Earle from his Nashville office. "I've found I can do things that before I'd just sit around and wish I could do.
Thespian lover "I'm involved in writing a play right now based on Karla Faye Tucker, who was the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. It kinda started as a vehicle for my girlfriend, Sara Sharpe, who's an actor but also an abolitionist -- that's how we met.
"This kind of writing is a new experience for me. When you work in a narrative style as I do, writing poetry tends to be tougher than fiction, but a play is a different thing altogether. The whole reason for the medium is to exist in three dimensions, and that requires 3D writing.
"I'll be plugging away at it on tour, but I'll need to wait till the tour's done and put the play up to figure out whether or not I have anything."
Haiku habit In the meantime, Earle is applying his creative skills to other forms of self-expression. Like some of his more notorious dalliances of the past, his habit of writing haiku poetry appears to be verging on an obsession.
"I write one haiku every day and I intend to continue doing that for the rest of the year. I've got about 170 right now. When I started, I didn't intend them for publication, but it's turning into a pretty interesting journal.
"I'd like to develop the idea a bit, maybe add some notes and turn it into a cool little book. It probably won't be released until after my collection of short fiction, Doghouse Roses (Houghton Mifflin), which is coming out in the spring of next year."
No doubt some would find it surprising to learn that Earle reads books, so the announcement that he may well have two books published under his name by the end of next year is certain to raise eyebrows in the literary world.
"I read a whole lot more non-fiction than I do fiction. I've got an eighth-grade education, so I feel obligated to spend more time reading non-fiction.
"Short stories work very well for me. There's no underlying theme to Doghouse Roses. It's just the first 11 short stories that I've written, and Doghouse Roses happens to be the name of one of them.
"It's fiction, and just like everybody else's fiction, some of the stuff taken from my personal experience will be obvious, some of it won't and people will miss it. Other people will read things into the stories and they'll just be wrong."
STEVE EARLE AND THE DUKES, at Convocation Hall (31 King's College Circle), Wednesday (July 26) at 8 pm. $25.50-$29.50. 870-8000.