Take no prisoners: Steve Earle steps up and asks the tough questions

By Mark Guarino

Steve Earle never sounded lonelier than in 1997 when he evoked Woody Guthrie in song, asking him to rise from the dead to lend big government a conscience, something it lost years ago.   

“He invented my job,” Earle says of Guthrie today and no doubt the iconic Depression-era troubadour would be pleased with Earle’s newest album, “Jerusalem” (Artemis), the first batch of music after Sept. 11.that dares to raise unpopular questions.   

So far, musical figureheads like Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and country’s Alan Jackson and Toby Keith have all chimed in on the issue, but with songs that suffer from being too meek in their perspective or too moronic in their broad strokes.   

With “Jerusalem,” it’s safe to say John Ashcroft or Dick Cheney won’t be sampling any of its songs at a Tower listening booth soon. Earle ridicules HMOs (“Amerika v. 6.0”), tries to understand why America’s most famous California teenager would join the Taliban (“John Walker’s Blues”) and frames modern day greed and hypocrisy with ancient Biblical imagery. Before the album was even in the stores, it was raising the ire of the right wing media, who branded Earle unpatriotic and desperate for sales.   

But as any art historian will tell you, political and social turmoil inevitably weeds the great artists from the jingle makers. “Jerusalem” shares a lineage with great rock statement making, from John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to NWA’s “(Expletive) Tha Police.” The fever in the music comes from the street, so for those who see red after just listening to a three-minute song, it probably means they don’t like feeling the heat.   

Musically, the album has more bite than anything Earle has recorded since the rejuvenating “I Feel Alright” (E-Squared/Warner Bros.), the rock album he made in 1996 after a well-publicized bust and eventual recovery from an addiction to heroin. That album jumpstarted his career that began in the mid-‘80s when he was heralded in Nashville circles as country music’s true chronicler of blue collar life. His drug episode ended up breaking the dam of his creativity and since then, Earle, 47, confirmed his stature as a first-rate singer-songwriter while also becoming the public face in campaigns to abolish the death penalty and for the removal of land mines worldwide.   

We talked last week, the same day “Jerusalem” arrived in stores. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A: In the past, most of your music had to do with day-to-day life of regular folks. At what point did you decide to write an album that was so topical?

A: It was weird. It sort of happened in stages. I had already written “Amerika v. 6.0” for a movie called “John Q.” (Director) Nick Cassavetes sent me a rough cut and said he wanted something for the closing credits, something really strong, really political. And I sent him a song that was much more moderate, knowing Hollywood the way I do. And he said, “no, no, I want a Steve Earle song, I want something really political.” And I said, “okay I can hook you up.” And I went back and wrote “6.0” and recorded it and sent the rough mix off and it was supposedly in the movie. Then Sept. 11 did happen and my immediate reaction to that was, I wrote “Ashes To Ashes.” And then Nick Cassavetes stopped returning my phone calls. And when we finally tracked him down, he finally admitted New Line didn’t want the song in the movie because it was too critical of the Bush administration in this time of war. So I kept writing. I didn’t intend writing a record this year and I ended up writing the record I thought I’d never write.

Q: Was that a new way to get a record out of you — not knowing what you were doing?

A: Not completely. They all had a different impetus. The bluegrass record (“The Mountain”) happened because I made a conscious decision to make bluegrass record and then I had to write songs in that format and it required a lot of work. But this was much more because the last record (“Transcendental Blues”) was all chick songs because I was in love and it was very relevant to me at the time. They’re all just the record I have in me at the time. This one was more immediate, more vital.

A: The opening song “Ashes To Ashes” takes such a broad, universal tone. You start out talking about the beginning of time.

A: Yeah it’s this big, sort of broad strokes Biblical kind of language that probably I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t been writing prose and poetry as I have been writing over the last few years. But all I can talk in terms of (songcraft) is the first verse is about the beginning of time and the second verse is about us. That was the whole idea to me. Like, I probably have a different take on Sept. 11 than other people. I immediately wanted to know what we did to make people hate us enough to fly airplanes deliberately into buildings.

Q: When you got into the writing, were you hesitant that it might be lumped in with the other albums that responded to Sept. 11?

A: I couldn’t worry about that. We had one agenda that was completely and totally music business related. I sell a couple of hundred thousand records, I don’t sell millions of records. So I can’t release a record in November because I’ll get killed for space (in stores). So if I was going to release a record this year, I needed to get it out in September or early October. So I had that deadline. And I really tried and failed to get the (“John Walker’s Blues”) out before John Walker went on trial. Because I really felt a need to humanize him, there were enough people vilifying him and I just wanted people to see him as a human being as we were going through this process.

Q: Did the hysteria touched off by that song surprise you?

A: No, coming who it came from didn’t surprise me at all. Like, it came from the New York Post and a right wing talk show host in Nashville. And I was on vacation, so when I got back from vacation, I came to New York because people wanted to talk to me. I went on the “Today” show and I went on Greta Van Susteren and nobody laid a glove on me because no one intelligent really questions my right to do this. And I think when people hear the whole song in context, they have a better understanding of why I did it. Some people are still going to be offended by it. And I’m really genuinely sorry, believe it or not, when I offend someone with music. The reason people are slow to react is they’re really genuinely afraid of dishonoring the memory of the people who died and offending their families. I run into that phenomenon with the death penalty thing all the time. You have to be respectful of it or you become immediately ineffective. I had to make a decision that I didn’t think anybody else was going to write this song and I felt it needed to be written and I think it found me to write it. And so I don’t believe in accidents that much anymore.

Q: What we’re talking about is music taking a stand. I reviewed Bruce Springsteen’s live show last night and he ended the show saying that we need more debate when it comes to attacking Iraq. I was surprised he didn’t get more explicit on how he felt.

A: I think it’s because he’s got a big huge audience that love him for a lot of reasons and most of them aren’t political and he has this huge responsibility. I think Bruce doesn’t readily communicate in political terms. I do. I think he communicates in human terms. I don’t expect people to leave my shows and oppose the death penalty and believe me, there’s still probably a majority of the people who buy my records who support the death penalty. It’s that divisive an issue. But that has shrunk over the years. And they do respect my opinion and they know they’re going to hear about it at some point over the show. And over the years, I think I’ve changed a few hearts and a few minds. And I think (Springsteen) was being careful. You know, look at the immediate reaction to that show in Madison Square Garden — Richard Gere gets booed and Susan Sarandon gets booed. Everyone in New York that I know, every little clique has a pet firefighter. And they’re going around drinking for free and getting more (expletive) than Sinatra. And the truth of the matter is, before Sept. 11, most people hated the firefighters in their neighborhood because they sat in front of the firehouse and whistled and catcalled at women and they played music too (expletive) loud and you know, they were rednecks (laughs). It’s okay to be a redneck but let’s not lose touch with reality.

Q: Before Sept. 11, the Chicago firefighters were known for a home video of a racist firehouse party.

A: Oh well, the Chicago Fire Department’s notorious. But it’s one of those things that we were looking through everything from a pretty skewed place and we have been over a year and who knows if it’ll ever get back to normal. But this idea that the whole world changed — and I’ve even said that — but the truth of the matter is, things changed a lot more here than they did any place else. Not just because it only happened here but this kind of terrorism existed everywhere else in the world for a very long time and we always thought it wasn’t going to happen here. And I hoped against hope that it would unite us with the rest of the world but so far it hasn’t. So far it’s created a gulf between us and the rest of the world.

Q: You wrote in your liner notes that when you were writing this album you felt lonely. I’ll assume it’s because the other Sept. 11 songs that were out there were one-dimensional crowd-pleasers like “Freedom” or “Let’s Roll.”

A: Yeah it felt lonely. I wrote those notes on July Fourth too, so it was really going. I was home and I was getting ready to go to minor league baseball game and watch firework with my kids. It’s what you expect a baseball game’s going to be on July Fourth after Sept. 11, it was pretty red, white and blue. And you know part of it is, I have to admit a prejudice on my part. I grew up in the sixties and when I see a lot of overt flag waving and a lot of flag stickers, I immediately see the “America, Love It Or Leave It,” too. That’s a prejudice, that’s a pre-conception I have and so I’m trying to be more careful about that.

Q: Why do you think mainstream music has gotten further and further from its radical roots?

A: Well we raised two or three generations of kids who think they’re destitute if they don’t make at least eighty thousand a year. They become doctors and lawyers for all the wrong reasons. And those are people who are going out and starting rock bands too.

Q: I’m 32 and many people my age blame the baby boomers. We may feel more radical but that spirit originated from the chapter on Vietnam in our history books. Now of course, we’re learning those people have long turned their back on what they stood for.

A: A lot of people have. That’s what “Christmas in Washington” was about. That’s what “6.0” is about. What happened is that generation, basically they got older and started having kids and a lot of people moderate when that happens. And what we did was, we had unbridled capitalism — and I’m going to come off as a foaming-at-the-mouth Marxist and when it comes to economics I am — but we had period of time when the classic capitalistic system was allowed to go completely nuts and bones were thrown to the classic bourgeoisie. You know, “hey you can have stocks and bonds too and you can participate in this prosperity.” And everybody bought it. And a lot of those people are hurting now and if they can’t figure out a way to inflate the balloon, or condom as it were, those people may rediscover their radical roots.

Q: You wrote “Christmas in Washington” almost six years ago and it felt like a turning point, since many of your songs were about your recovery from drugs and your personal journeys. How did you come to the place where it felt okay to make overtly political statements in your songs?

A: I think I’ve always been really political, the death penalty songs started a long time before “Christmas in Washington.” I’m not a political writer, I’m a songwriter. I don’t think Woody Guthrie was a political songwriter. If you looked at his body of work, he was a songwriter who lived in a really politically charged time. This record that I made was only record I could have made if I wrote any songs at all in this atmosphere.

Q: So it’s really the climate that dictates things.

A: Yeah, it was a midlife crisis song and a midterm crisis song. I was watching election returns and I had I voted for Clinton again. There were a lot of things I disagreed with Bill Clinton about. And it was really borne out my realization that he made so many concessions that he didn’t need to make because he was going to get reelected anyway. And it was me realizing I had just started to become a hardcore activist again. Even around the death penalty, and I opposed the death penalty all my life. But it was written during a point of time in my life I was really starting to do something about it again.

Q: So many people are complaining that democrats have fallen silent and are afraid of bucking the Bush administration when it comes to Iraq. Does this lend further evidence that we need a third party?

A: I don’t think it’s a third party we need, I think we need about 10 or 12 other parties. I think international parties need to be viable and there’s nothing in our Constitution that says they can’t be. But we’re a long way away from that happening. I didn’t vote for (2000 Green party candidate Ralph) Nader because I would have really truly felt like I was helping elect Bush. And you know what, a lot of Nader votes would have made the difference. Because they certainly wouldn’t have gone to Bush. I work with the Green Party internationally all the time. The Green Party in Tennessee approached me about running for the senate. And that lost my Nader vote right there. I’m automatically suspicious of any party that would have me as a candidate.

Q: So running for office is not in your cards.

A: (Expletive) no. I have to put on a suit once in awhile and go up on that hill for death penalty stuff and I had to touch Newt Gingrich once and that’s hard enough for me to do. It’s the model of (early century radical intellectual) John Reed that’s important to remember: I’ll always be more powerful as an artist than I would ever be as a politician.

Q: Music has been dumbed down lately, especially in the past 12 months. I’d like to think your record will open the door for riskier stuff to creep in there and challenge people again.

A: I think the times will dictate that that will happen again. I think we were going to Iraq before Sept. 11. I think it’s sort of dishonoring the memory of all those people to use that as an excuse because they were going to go into Iraq anyway. And as soon as kids start coming home in body bags, music will start reflecting that. The Vietnam War ended when my dad became opposed to the Vietnam War, not when I was became opposed to the Vietnam War. But I had to become opposed to it first before my dad was ever opposed to it.

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