Steve Earle is a political role model to some now, but that wasn't always the case. Sure, he looked like he was doing something, appearing at rallies with guitar in hand, but he didn't really care. Back then, this was Earle's version of Getting Involved: "I rolled up in the limo, got out and sang a song, got back in the limo and left." Well, he did get out of the car, at least. There was that. And that happened all the time. Earle was just another guy who confused the best he could do with all he could be doing. He was trying to beat the devil, but he wasn't really playing for the angels.
That was a decade or so ago. Before he went to the joint, before he stopped shooting dope. Before his vision improved. You see things with a different set of eyes after you've been looking at the world from the inside of a cage, get a new perspective when you take your foot out of the grave and kick the dirt off your boot. This was also long before Danny Goldberg, who runs the label Earle now records for, Artemis, urged him to put his politics on tape, and before 9/11 made him warm up to the idea. Before he wrote and recorded September's Jerusalem, the kind of album Noam Chomsky would cut if he'd grown up with guitars instead of textbooks.
So the man on the phone now, his voice as high and Texan as the flag in front of the Capitol building in Austin, bears little resemblance to the one you might have seen onstage at a benefit back then, itching to get back to the limousine. He talks about his work to abolish capital punishment, explains why the war on drugs is every bit as futile as the war in Vietnam was and the war in Iraq will be, questions the government. Questions everything, really. Earle is, after all, the same songwriter who has a track on his latest disc titled "Conspiracy Theory."
Steve Earle and the Dukes
Gypsy Tea Room
But it's not just talk. Earle doesn't only perform at the rallies now; he organizes some of them. He's testified before Congress and appeared on more political talk shows than most senators. He puts his money where his mouth is, and he puts his mouth wherever there is something that doesn't sit right with him.
If you want a short list, pick up a copy of Jerusalem. There, Earle declares war on war (mourning Vietnam's "50,000 sons who never grew to fathers" in "Conspiracy Theory") and takes on HMOs (snarling at "the accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills" in "Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," while rolling the Stones). He sticks up for illegal aliens ("What's a Simple Man to Do?") and inmates ("The Truth," which is that "what scares you is the me in you") and, infamously, tries to get a read on John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban ("John Walker's Blues"). He even attacks America's now-shaky sense of superiority: "It's always best to keep in mind/That every tower ever built tumbles...And someday even man's best-laid plans/Will lie twisted and covered in rust," he sings on Jerusalem's ghostly, album-opening "Ashes to Ashes." Which means: The U.S. of A. is not fundamentally entitled to be the strongest country in the world. And also: It might not be forever. Not exactly the kind of sentiment you'd find on, say, Toby Keith's Unleashed.
"What Toby Keith did is pandering, and if you want to make money off of a situation like this, it's obviously the way to go," Earle says, on the phone from his management's office in Nashville. "He sells a lot more records than I do. But I don't--you know, Toby Keith has the same constitutional right to make an ass of himself as anybody else does. And in that I support him."
While "songwriters" like Keith probably wouldn't support Earle's right to do the same (more likely: Earle would "get a boot in the ass" from the self-proclaimed "Angry American"), there are others out there who do (see: Sleater-Kinney's One Beat), and more are joining up every day. Earle believes he'll have plenty of company soon enough. He's not necessarily happy about that, either. Because that will mean things are getting worse.
"Unfortunately, you're not gonna see a lot of stuff until you start seeing body bags coming back from Iraq," he says. "I hate to say that, but I think it's probably true. It's what happened during the Vietnam War."
That's when Earle came of age, as a songwriter and as a man. Other than a talent show when he was in the seventh grade, his first gig in front of a large audience was in front of the Alamo, at a rally put together by Vietnam veterans who were against the war. His activism, it seems, isn't a case of his turning over a new leaf, but rather, it's more about throwing the old one on an already smoldering brush fire.
That said, he did lose his way for a time. Earle didn't find his way back until "Ellis Unit One," the song he wrote for the soundtrack album to Tim Robbins' 1996 film, Dead Man Walking. "Ellis Unit One" told the beat-down tale of a prison guard working death row, haunted by years of helping the state "put 'em down." It was bookend to "Billy Austin" (from 1990's The Hard Way), which found Earle taking the same long walk toward execution, this time with shackles around his wrists and ankles. "Billy Austin" got invited to anti-death penalty benefits, but "Ellis Unit One" showed him what to do when he got there.
"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.
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."
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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."