By Beth Johnson
June 12, 2009 at 09:31 PM EDT

Country-rocker Steve Earle is a serious multitasker. Last Sunday night, the two-time Grammy winner returned for his second year as a Sirius XM radio DJ with “The Steve Earle Show: Hardcore Troubadour Radio” on the Outlaw Country channel. His new album, Townes — covering songs by his late pal and mentor Townes Van Zandt — debuted in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 chart (a first for Earle). He just cameoed on the season finale of 30 Rock, and even has a role in the upcoming Leaves of Grass, starring Edward Norton and Susan Sarandon. EW caught up with Earle on his tour bus. After the jump, our full interview.

EW: So you’ve re-upped for a second year on Sirius. Was that a tough decision with everything you have going on?

SE: Well, you know I started on Air America, so I have a fondness for radio. But that was a weekend show, and I was sort of a victim of the realities of AM radio. I wasn’t being heard! I hung in for a while and Rachel Maddow and I made a vow to be the last people out the door. She kept her word and I haven’t! When I finally left to go to Sirius, that was one of the hardest parts — Rachel and I literally made a pact and I had to break it. But she wasn’t on the weekends!

EW: What do you think of her TV show?

SE: Trust me, everyone who knew Rachel back then is very, very proud of her. She rocks. I watch her every night.

EW: I have to admit, I didn’t realize that you had a show on Air America.

SE: Because it was on the f—in’ weekends! So I moved over to Sirius. I really love doing the Sirius show, and I program my show myself. When I’m home in New York, I do it in the studio. When I’m on tour, I have a rig on the bus — I have all the necessary equipment in an attache case. Next week is music inspired by hard economic times.

EW: So do you hang out with the other Sirius hosts, like Howard Stern and Bob Dylan?

SE: Not Howard Stern. Howard Stern only paid attention to me once — he played 15 seconds of one of my songs once, “F— the FCC,” when he was having his own problems with the FCC before he was on satellite radio. I hang out with [the Dictators‘] Handsome Dick Manitoba. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s on Underground Garage. I’ve known Steven Van Zandt — who created the Outlaw Country channel — for years and years, and I hang out with the people that I bump into in the hallway. I know virtually everyone who is on Outlaw Country, because most of them are people I knew before I was doing radio.

EW: Congratulations on your first top 20 Billboard debut.

SE: Thanks, thanks, it’s a big gift from Townes. It’s a humbling experience for a singer-songwriter, to record someone else’s great songs. And I need a humbling experience every f—in’ once in a while.

EW: I thought you’d already had a few! [Earle’s colorful past includes six divorces and a mid-’90s drug-and-firearms related jail stint. He’s been sober for years.]

SE: I have—but the hits just keep comin’!

EW: So are you doing any more acting, now that The Wire is over? I was floored to see you on 30 Rock recently, singing alongside Elvis Costello and Mary J. Blige. 

SE: For that episode, all of the writers on 30 Rock got to invite their favorite musicians, so it created the diversity that they thought it would. It was fun. I’m also in a feature comedy-thriller called Leaves of Grass, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who was in O Brother, Where Art Thou. It stars Edward Norton and Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfuss, and I’m in it as a drug dealer. It’s my first bad guy. It’s the exact opposite of my character on The Wire. Edward plays twin brothers— one of them is a classics professor at Brown and the other one is a marijuana dealer in Oklahoma—and I get to beat up both of them! [laughs] It also looks like I’m going to be on Treme [The Wire creator David Simon’s show about post-Katrina New Orleans] if everything works out with my schedule.

EW: Was acting something you always wanted to do?

SE: Nah, it was David Simon’s idea for me to be an actor—it goes back to The Wire. I’d never done it before. I mean, I love theater. I go all the time. It’s one of the reasons I moved to New York. But I understand that I have limited range as an actor. I can only play people who talk like me. [laughs]

EW: Have the acting gigs increased since you moved to New York City?

SE: When I started The Wire I was still in Nashville — ‘cause I was off and on for the five years the show was on. But it’s certainly easier to get jobs now that I’ve moved to New York. And I have the one credit that all New York actors have on their resume: Law and Order.

EW: Is your wife [singer-songwriter Allison Moorer] on tour with you right now?

SE: Not this time. And it’s hard not having her along. She’s sitting out this tour so she can work on her next album, and also because she’s taking courses at Parsons in fashion design. Look at — she’s designed eco-friendly, high-fashion clothing.

EW: You’ve appeared on each other’s albums, but when are you going to make a whole album together?

SE: I don’t know when it will happen, but it’s been on the list for a while. Every night I play “Sparkle and Shine” [his song about her from 2007’s Washington Square Serenade], and during the last couple of tours she’s come out on stage for it. And now it’s a drag, ’cause I play that song and she doesn’t come out. I got close to cutting it from the set because it bums me out that she’s not there.

EW: I know you published a collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses. You’re also working on another book, right?

SE: I’ve been working on my novel for a while, and you should see that out next year. And I have a one- man show about Pete Seeger’s 1955 appearance before HUAC [House Committee on Un-American Activities]once the book is turned in. And my next record will be my own songs. I keep working because I’m so proud to have work, because not everyone does.

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