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If you want to get roots rocker Steve Earle's attention, just mention W. Then sit back and wait for the fireworks.
"Bush has left us a bankrupt country," says Earle, adamantly. "And it's going to take us a long time to recover from his mistakes."
Out on the second leg of a lengthy tour, Earle sounds a bit winded—and not even a little interested in talking just about his music. Still supporting his latest release, the unusually sedate and conventional Washington Square Serenade, the 52-year-old alt-country godfather only warms up when the subject turns to the impending end of the Bush administration.
"It's arguable that [even] if McCain gets elected that the Bush era will even be over, that things will be fundamentally different," Earle says, speaking from his tour bus. "Eight years of Bush has been a really bad time to live through, and the damage that's been done will affect my grandchildren."
Now energized to his normal fast-talking, highly charged demeanor, Earle begins issuing hot opinions on subjects as varied as foreign policy and the role of the popular artist in times of crisis.
"We're the first nation in the history of the world to attempt to rule the planet and cut taxes at the same time," Earle says, sounding like the political firebrand he's come to be known as ever since debuting in 1986 with the genre-bending effort Guitar Town.
"It's no secret that I'm well to the left of a Democrat," he says. "There's a reason Al and Tipper Gore nearly levitated in order not to take a picture with me."
Earle's history is a fascinating tale of success, downfall, recovery and rebirth, punctuated by his unique synthesis of country and rock, as well as his inability to contain his political opinions. More than 30 years ago, Earle was marketed as some sort of unholy fusion of Buck Owens and Bruce Springsteen—and erroneously lumped into the neo-traditionalist movement kick-started by Dwight Yoakam.
Even when he was cleaned and pressed by his (major) record label and writing heartland anthems like "When the Rains Came Down"—overly earnest stuff better suited to John Cougar Mellencamp—Earle remained a rebel at heart, a long-haired redneck with a self-destructive streak.
"I never worried about whether or not I was acceptable," he says. "Other people around me pulled their hair out worrying about it."
Perhaps those people were right to worry. After abandoning any pretense of being a regular country artist, Earle released Copperhead Road, a powerful rock record with only Earle's South Texas drawl connecting him with early influences such as Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. The record was Earle's best-selling effort, but there were signs that things were moving in a darker direction. Earle's early exposure to cocaine and heroin had turned into a serious addiction. Shows were missed and altercations with fans—and even members of his own crew—became frequent occurrences. By 1994, Earle ended up in a Nashville jail for drug possession and gun charges. Many figured his career was at an end.
"There was probably a part of me that said it was over," Earle says. Luckily, part of his sentence was commuted to a stay in the rehab center where Earle overcame his demons.
"It just doesn't make sense to an intelligent person that you can get fucked up and do something better," Earle says, "and that includes playing music."
After his release from rehab, Earle began the second phase of his career, a storied rebirth that began with the release of Train a Comin' in 1995 and continued with I Feel Alright and Transcendental Blues, albums that finally delivered on the promise of merging old-school honky-tonk with pure rock 'n' roll. Earle then pushed the envelope even further by incorporating elements of Indian music and a little-known reverence for The Beatles.
"Transcendental Blues was sort of the pinnacle of what I wanted to do," he says. "I am really proud of that record. And that's why I still play many songs from it."
Earle's unlikely musical resurrection coincided with his decision to speak out politically. Never reluctant to express his leftist leanings, Earle's status as alternative country's elder statesman has allowed him the carte blanche to sound off and still make a decent living.
"This whole idea that artists are somehow unqualified to comment on society is crazy," says Earle. "I think Dick Cheney made it up."
Earle's contempt for the current administration puts him firmly in the camp of whatever Democrat receives that party's nomination. Yet Earle is not endorsing anyone.
"The best thing I can do for the candidate that I want to get elected is to be very quiet about my support," he says, with only a hint of sarcasm.
Occasionally, Earle's outspokenness has gotten him into hot water. His 2002 effort, Jerusalem, featured the song "John Walker's Blues," which many felt shone a positive light on John Walker Lindh, the infamous American Taliban member. Earle refused to condemn Lindh, though, and he actually embraced the controversy, appearing on numerous talk shows to defend his views on terrorism and patriotism.
"I've been accused of trying to capitalize on what was going on in the world by writing 'John Walker's Blues,' and that is pretty ignorant," says Earle.
Actually, he's right. One of Earle's greatest attributes is his ability to write about current political topics and not come off as self-righteous or condescending. The title track from Jerusalem is an eloquent and emotional survey of the situation in the Middle East, assessing the circumstances in terms of blood and shame instead of political ideologies and enflamed dogma.
"I write about what goes on around me," Earle says. "I have the microphone, so unfortunately you have to hear from me."
Thankfully, what Earle has to say is laudable. And his music, especially since giving up drugs and alcohol, has been consistently first-rate. His non-musical endeavors have been plentiful too: Earle's post-addiction work ethic has included a heralded acting stint on The Wire, publishing of a book of poetry and hosting a weekly radio show on Air America.
"I don't want to write a screenplay," Earle says of the one area of the entertainment industry that doesn't interest him. "But I don't mind acting 'cause the insurance is better."