Steve Earle asks the hardest of questions in the darkest of times



By Steve Newton

Steve Earle garnered a lot of attention last year for “John Walker’s Blues”, a song that put the Nashville-based singer-songwriter in the unfortunate shoes of captured Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. At a time when many of his countrymen were ready to string up the “American Taliban”, Earle risked alienating fans by showing the 20-year-old Lindh in a sympathetic light. He even went as far as to appear on CNN’s blustery political talk show Crossfire to defend his stance. Earlier this month Jerusalem, the CD “John Walker’s Blues” was taken from, earned Earle his fifth Grammy nomination.

Although Jerusalem was the recording that made headlines for Earle in 2002, he also quietly issued Sidetracks, a collection of previously unreleased tunes that included another shot at George Bush’s “with us or against us” mentality—though one not fired from Earle’s own poisoned pen. “My Uncle” is an old Flying Burrito Brothers number, written by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, which takes the Vietnam War–era viewpoint of an American draft-dodger pondering an escape to Canada.

“So I’m headed for the nearest foreign border,” sings Earle, “Vancouver might be just my kinda town/’Cause they ain’t got the kind of law and order that tends to keep a good man underground.” In the liner notes to Sidetracks, Earle writes, “I consider this song to be VERY patriotic.” Taking into account the increasingly paranoid, civil rights–trampling situation in the States, you’ve gotta wonder if the freedom-loving Earle—who’s also known for his songs decrying capital punishment—ever seriously considered moving up to these more tolerant parts. “Oh yeah,” he drawls from his manager’s Music City office, “I have several times. But right now I’m thinking more in terms of my son relocating there. You know, it looks like we’re going back to war and he’s draft age, 21.

“I hope Canada has the voice that it had and the integrity that it had during the Vietnam War. I’m not sure I see a [Pierre] Trudeau in Canada, and I don’t think it’s a given that Canada will not go along with the United States, especially considering, you know, Britain seems to be. But that’s something for Canadians to think about.”

For those who’ve followed the Virginia-born, Texas-raised troubadour’s tumultuous career since his Guitar Town debut of 1986, he may not have always seemed like the most politically minded artist. Early on, his country-flavoured tunes were more likely to be about bored young men trying to leave dead-end towns. Other times, as with “Copperhead Road”, he’d catch the ears of the biker/redneck contingent with tales of good ol’ boys growing weed and running moonshine. But there was more behind the rollicking vibe of that breakthrough ’88 hit than some might have realized.

“I don’t think ‘Copperhead Road’, especially, is completely and totally unpolitical,” he points out. “I mean, that’s a song about people in a certain part of the States where there’s never been any jobs, and they’ve always had to do whatever they had to do to make a living. That has always bred outlaws, and I think there’s a political component to that.

“But [Jerusalem] is definitely the most overtly political album I’ve made, and who knows what’ll happen after this,” Earle continues. “If we’re goin’ to war, this one isn’t gonna be over in 24 hours. You know, if the body bags start coming back then you’ll probably see more political songwriting from me and other people.”

While doing his part in the antiwar effort, Earle also gives credit to others in the entertainment biz who are speaking out against the notion of a U.S.–led invasion of Iraq. He applauds actor Sean Penn for his full-page ad in the Washington Post that questioned Bush’s buildup of military troops. Earle believes that celebrity activists can make a difference—if they’re able to make themselves heard.

“I think a lot of famous people are [speaking out],” he says, “and I think the media is choosing to ignore it—that’s why Penn had to buy an ad.…We have a news media now that panders to the government, simply because of access to certain information that they want—and advertising dollars. The political process is a huge moneymaker for broadcasters.”

Of course, one need only switch on the AOL Time-Warner–owned CNN—with its ubiquitous SHOWDOWN: IRAQ logo—to get a queasy feeling about the cash-driven sabre-rattling Earle refers to. Showdown, indeed. After the one-sided bloodbath of the Gulf War, Earle says that an American attack on Iraq would be less like an actual war and more like shooting fish in a barrel. “The way we wage war now, we’re very much allergic to a body count of our own,” he states. “That’s how several Canadians got killed recently in a situation like that, where it’s done by remote control. And the problem is that I personally don’t believe that Iraqi and Afghan lives are worth less than American ones.”

Although Earle has proven himself willing to ask the hardest of questions in the darkest of times, his songwriting these days is not all doom and gloom. Jerusalem ends with a title track that sees him professing belief in a peaceful resolution to the Mideast conflict. “That song is not even so much about optimism as it is about faith,” he relates. “I mean, all I know is I’m a recovering addict, and recovering addicts don’t believe in accidents. I think we keep turning our attention to this one spot a third of the way around the world—over and over again, for 2,000 years—for a reason. As hopeless as that situation seems, there’s always hope, and I think that maybe what we’re supposed to figure out is, if we can get it right there—no matter how hard it is—then everything else will be easy.”

Steve Earle sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On the backlash to his controversial song, “John Walker’s Blues”: “The backlash came from pretty predictable, hard-right-wing sources, and for the most part the reviews have been great. People have understood why I wrote it.”

On whether he’s been contacted by John Walker Lindh or his family about the song: “If I had I wouldn’t tell ya. I haven’t, you know, so far, but if I do in the future I probably wouldn’t tell anybody, ’cause they’ve been through enough.”

On what music he’s been listening to lately: “What’s in my CD player in the truck right now is John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, ’cause they reissued it, and I’ve always dug that record. But the thing that I was curious about was the White Stripes. So I bought the CD, and they’re pretty cool, but I think they need a bass player. I guess I’m gettin’ old.”

On his being nominated for five Grammies, but as of yet never winning the award: “I’m the Susan Lucci of rock ’n’ roll. I’m always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

Leave a Reply