War On War

Steve Earle wonders what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding

"That record benefited an organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, which is an organization of murder victims' family members who are opposed to the death penalty," Earle explains. "Those activists were people who were walking answers to the question, 'What would you do if it was your wife, your daughter?'--which is the question you're automatically asked when you oppose the death penalty. They taught me to be an activist and it sort of went from there, and it's grown from there."

Now, it's almost to the point where some would consider Earle an activist first and a musician second. Which is a shame, because he is one of the country's truly great songwriters, whether it's rock (2000's Transcendental Blues), country (1986's Guitar Town), folk (1995's Train a Comin'), bluegrass (1999's The Mountain, with the Del McCoury Band) or whatever (2002's collection of odds and ends, Sidetracks). Jerusalem is provocative as prose, yes, but don't forget it's also music, and it would work on that level even if you didn't agree with Earle's politics. Though you probably should.

That's the way it has always gone for Earle: He starts something and, sooner or later, it gets out of hand--it's politics now, drug addiction before, music always. You could certainly apply that idea to his latest venture, Karla, a play about Texan death-row casualty Karla Faye Tucker. By the time he was finished, he'd started a theater company, the BroadAxe Theater in Nashville. (BroadAxe staged the play in the fall to favorable reviews; Earle says stops in Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas are planned before Karla finishes its run.) His upcoming collection of haikus also spiraled out of control: Earle wrote one for every day of the year, and fittingly, he did it during a leap year, so he ended up with 366. Like his song says, he ain't ever satisfied, even when it comes to haiku.

Steve Earle still feels all right asking the questions no one wants to answer.
Michael Wilson
Steve Earle still feels all right asking the questions no one wants to answer.
Portrait of the activist as a young musician: Steve Earle, on his way to Guitar Town.
Melody Gimple
Portrait of the activist as a young musician: Steve Earle, on his way to Guitar Town.

Both of those projects helped Earle when it came time to write the songs for Jerusalem. "I don't think I would have ever written 'Ashes to Ashes' if I hadn't written poetry or if I hadn't written a play," he says. "I just didn't write in those sort of broad, biblical brushstrokes. I didn't write in that kind of language."

And for a while, he didn't really want to. Before 9/11 happened, Earle's label boss, Danny Goldberg, a vocal civil liberties advocate, had asked him to focus his next record on politics. The only trouble was, Earle thought he'd been doing that all along.

"I wasn't real keen on the idea, to tell you the truth," he says. "I sort of feel like making art is political just in and of itself. It's a political statement, especially in this day and age. And there's always a political component in what I do, you know; stuff that I care about ends up in my songs. But then September 11 happened, and I found myself making the only record I could make."

Which was fine, except that a couple of months before Jerusalem hit stores, the media learned of "John Walker's Blues," the tune Earle wrote from the perspective of John Walker Lindh. Soon enough, the New York Post had condemned the song ("Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" said the headline), and CNN anchor Paula Zahn was questioning his motives on the air, though she had never actually heard the song. The controversy died once Jerusalem was released and listeners could make up their own minds, but it remains a good example of Earle's problems with the media. He knows there is the truth, and then there's what you see on the evening news.

"I don't think anywhere close to half the people in this country wholeheartedly support a war in Iraq," he says. "But I think the government and the news media were complicit in it. The guys in the government had an agenda, which was to blur the lines between what happened on September 11 and attacking Iraq. Because they intended and planned to go into Iraq anyway. And I think the news media--you know, we get most of our news from television, and CNN is a network because of Iraq--I think they've been complicit, in that they like to make the little cards that say 'War on Terror' and 'Showdown: Iraq.' That just plays better than peace, love and understanding does."

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