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Music: Earles of Wisdom

Activist/singer Steve Earle on 'What's Wrong With America'

By David Simutis · November 21st, 2002 · Music
  Steve Earle's song
Steve Earle's song "John Walker's Blues," about "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh drew ire from conservative pundits, though none of them had even heard the song.

Considering his new album Jerusalem examines the consequences of post-9/11 America, it seems fitting to be talking with Steve Earle on Election Day. From Tennessee you can almost hear his heart breaking as the results come in.

Earle, unlike most people in this region, voted Democrat. Actually, unlike most people in this region, Earle voted.

"I'm not a Democrat," he says, explaining why he pulled the handle the way he did. "I'm just really, really not a Republican."

But his main concern isn't that everyone agree with him -- it's that people examine their beliefs. Like the great patriots of history, Earle believes that for democracy to flourish a dialogue of ideas must be maintained, especially the unpopular ones.

Earle works much like he talks -- with deliberate intensity. He just closed down the run of his first play, Karla, about Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas in more than 100 years. (She was executed under then-Gov. George W. Bush.) Rehearsals for his current tour start two days later.

In addition to the play, he wrote a book of short stories, Doghouse Roses. He's also campaigned against the death penalty, landmines and American drug policy. And that's just in his spare time between recording six albums in the past seven years.

Perhaps Earle is making up for time he lost to drugs, prison and rehab, though he started his career at a similar breakneck pace. The Virginia-born, Texas-raised rebel met Townes Van Zant at 18 and worked in Guy Clark's band before becoming a professional songwriter in Nashville.

After those apprenticeships, Earle decided to become an artist in his own right, releasing his first album, Guitar Town, in 1986. Though it was a fairly straightforward Country set and earned him two Grammy nominations, the attitude beneath the twang was pure Rock & Roll swagger.

It set the tone for a turbulent career that found Earle pitted against the Music City establishment and his own record label. Three more records, each with an increasing amount of Rock added to the Country, and a drug habit soon followed.

In 1991, Earle lost his record contract and his drug use spiraled out of control. For the next couple of years, he was in and out of both jail and crack houses in South Nashville. After being convicted for heroin possession in 1994, he was sentenced to a year in the big house. Instead, he went to rehab. He's been clean and prolific ever since.

His studies of interpersonal politics predate his sobriety, though his newfound urgency has clearly focused his songwriting. From the moonshiners and drug-runners of his 1988 album Copperhead Road's title track to the loners and drifters inhabiting 1996's I Feel Alright, Earle makes common and depressing life seem poetic and universal.

It's not out of character that his 9/11 response is a first-person song about the American Taliban John Walker Lindh, called "John Walker's Blues." Archconservative radio talk show hosts and The New York Post indicted Earle as the new Hanoi Jane, but that's because they hadn't heard the song. Earle just tries to get inside the head of someone so disenchanted with this country that he searches for something else to believe in.

"If I'm not pissing off The New York Post, then I'm not doing my job," Earle says. "I went on the Today show, Inside Edition and the Greta Van Susteren show (On the Record), and nobody laid a glove on me. Because they couldn't. No one halfway intelligent questions my right to write about whatever I want to in this country. And most of the reaction to the record has been great. The only mainstream publication that has gone after me is The Wall Street Journal, and they have a right-wing agenda because they have to."

Musically, "Walker's Blues" is certainly better than what other Country artists have offered in reaction to current events of late, especially the melodramatic, exploitative "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" by Alan Jackson and Charlie Daniel's thinly veiled racist rant "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag." Earle's Lindh song is certainly within the spirit of the record, though the singer's motivation, beyond asking the tough questions that need to be asked, was more parental than political.

"I saw him as a 20-year-old kid -- I've got a 20-year-old kid who's skinny like that, even when I do feed him," Earle says, before taking a long pause, which suggests he's not just rehashing the same things he told Katie Couric. "The first thing that occurred to me was, 'He's got parents and they must be sick.' When someone is being judged that publicly, they deserve to be judged as a human being. All I was trying to do was humanize John Walker Lindh. I knew it was a song nobody else was going to write but me. As it turned out, I was wrong, because Patti Smith wrote one ('Walker') too."

Like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Jerusalem chronicles a tumultuous time without being heavy-handed. Earle captures his dissatisfaction on "Conspiracy Theory" and "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," which attack politics-as-usual under murky grooves and twangy guitars. Guests Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris provide a feminine counterpoint to his gruff drawl on a track each, but there's no sweetening.

Earle's pointed questions about both America's role in the world and its long-term future. Given the timing of the interview and the subject matter, who better to ask what's wrong with the country?

"Well, I'm a hillbilly singer, but I know what's wrong with it from where I sit and I think what's important is that I say what I think is wrong from where I sit and that a dialogue ensue," he says. "I have that relationship with my audience. I bet just barely over 50 percent of the people who buy all of my records are opposed to the death penalty. But they're willing for that dialogue to take place between us. There's a respect that has developed between us.

"There's a lot of things that are wrong. I think it's ridiculous for people to go hungry and without medical care in the richest country in the world. The idea of cutting taxes no matter what, because it gets politicians elected, is killing us. Tax-and-spend beats the fuck out of just spend -- and politicians are going to spend. They don't run for office to not get rich. You've got to be rich to run for office these days. I think a two-party system limits us. And I think we're institutionalizing a lot of bigotry, both racially and religiously.

"And we're very much in danger of starting a war against Islam, which will be World War III and won't be finished off by dropping a couple of bombs. Do I know how to fix it? No, but I do know that we have to talk about it. Communication is paramount."

STEVE EARLE performs Tuesday at Bogart's with special guest Garrison Starr.


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