Controversy, Conspiracy & the Constitution: A Conversation with Steve Earle

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Controversy, Conspiracy & the Constitution: A Conversation with Steve Earle

PasteCover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

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For the first time since he came roaring back from the dead and began living his second life with a voracity that only a former burned-out junkie can, Steve Earle looks uncomfortable. Although he’s probably the type of guy who never looks relaxed in a suit jacket, he appears to be especially ill at ease today. In what may be the beginning of months—if not years—of explaining his artistic motives, he looks as if he’s already grown weary of defending himself as Today Show host Matt Lauer asks him exactly why he’d write a song such as “John Walker’s Blues”—a hauntingly dirge-ish track with a chorus in Arabic that attempts to inhabit the persona of the 20-year-old “American Taliban” (clearly well within the Earle tradition of giving voice to unlovable characters). Only a few blocks from Ground Zero, Earle looks tired and disinterested, his head propped up precariously on his hand as he cradles the guitar that’s barely finished resonating from a stirringly earnest rendition of the song in question. This warm New York City morning in the middle of August comes four weeks after an unexpected leak caused a song that wouldn’t even be available to the record-buying public for nearly two months to garner headlines such as “Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat” and to provoke certain radio personalities to dub Earle the new Hanoi Jane of his generation.
“Don’t hold your breath on the exercise tapes,” he quips, as if hoping to inject some humor into the solemn mood of the room. Sighing deeply before answering Lauer’s questions, he clearly knows what he’s gotten himself into.

Intuitively the whole situation seems more than a little ironic: one of the most prolific and gifted singer-songwriters of the last 10 years, only now is Steve Earle being presented to a national audience. And the mood seems to be closer to that of an interrogation than one of recognition or even investigation. People took little notice when he triumphed over heroin addiction and added the titles of “political activist,” “author,” “playwright,” and “actor” to that of “reigning king of the hillbilly poets.” Now they want to know what he has to say. Or, more accurately, what he has to say for himself. It’s not even eight in the morning, and he still has to endure Greta Van Susteren on Fox News before the day is over.

Early the next day, Steve Earle walks into the conference room at Artemis Records and tosses a thick, disheveled newspaper and a bottled water down on the table—hardly the tools of trade for a radical or even a recovering rowdy. Spotting a stack of promotional posters for his new album lying on the table, he shakes his head disgustedly. “Man, I look like a professional wrestler in that photo,” he cackles at a picture he finds unflattering. Still, Earle seems to be in altogether good spirits, not at all frazzled by the last few days of being grilled on national television. After all, he’s going to see the Yankees play tonight.

Sitting in a padded swivel chair, Earle is a bundle of barely restrained energy, constantly rocking back and forth in his chair, barely finishing his sentences before moving on to the next logically connected topic in the theoretical chain, and never giving the slightest reason to believe that he’s being anything but completely forthcoming. No longer the slightly dangerous looking kid found on the cover of his landmark Guitar Town in 1986, he peers at you through horn-rimmed glasses over a graying muzzle—more professor than tireless troubadour. Still, there is an utter approachability in the man, part unassuming charm and intellectual modesty. If the controversy is wearing on him, it doesn’t show on this day.

“I expected it,” he says without a hint of irony. “I don’t know whether I expected so much promotion help from the far right … I’m not so much a liberal as I am a radical, and I’m pretty unapologetic about it. But I do believe democracy means [being a radical is] OK. And it’s OK for them to be right wing, too.” And although the question only intended to elicit his reaction to the hullabaloo surrounding his song, he goes on to offer his views on government coalitions, a commentary on the two-party system, and the history of popular democracy with typical eloquence.

Still, it’s somewhat obvious that the reaction did catch him somewhat off guard. “[‘John Walker’s Blues’] was a leak. The record isn’t out until September 24th. We didn’t expect it. I was expecting something when the record came out, but it sort of happened when I was at the beginning of a month vacation, and I never even thought about coming back,” he admits matter-of-factly. “Most places in Europe … no one gets accused of being a traitor for merely questioning something. We sort of have the corner on that market.”

It didn’t take long for such accusations to translate into headlines: from those defending his right to make such a statement, those who felt it akin to treason, and those who simply felt it was career suicide to make a statement like this to a country that for the past year has been veritably hemorrhaging red, white and blue.

“I don’t hold people completely and totally responsible for everything that they do in a climate where their leaders are intentionally pushing their buttons because it helps them meet their agenda,” Earle explains, proposing that the backlash against him is possibly not representative of the American people. “There are few intelligent people that don’t believe I have every right to write this, that it’s not healthy for me to write to this,” he says, although his tone changes to a more sinister shade. “But the people that are really smart that believe otherwise, watch out for those motherf—ers. You want to know where they are all the time. I’m not any sort of threat to national security or anything else, because I have a big mouth and everybody knows where I am and what I’m doing. Dick Cheney scares the f— out of me. …He sort of went completely off of our radar, and I think he figured out, ‘Oh, this is cool. I’m running the whole thing and I’m not having to answer to anybody.’ These are dangerous, dangerous times. If there’s ever a time to ask questions, it’s now,” he says, giving a flash of his infamously conspiratorial nature. In fact, Earle has said that he considers Jerusalem to be his most patriotic record to date, encompassing what he feels are the core American values.
“I think that I feel that any time we start accusing people of being un-American we need to hold a mirror up quick. I think the one thing that we’re going to leave behind when this civilization is gone … is possibly our Constitution,” he says, momentarily blurring the lines stereotypically found between him and his detractors. “Sometimes we set out to do something and we create something that is bigger than we are …The great part of us is that we created this document that somehow reels us back in. And we’ve abused the f—- out of it and ignore it sometimes, but over a period of time the document proves … to be bigger than we are… And it’s still really necessary to defend it,” he finishes, almost sounding like the conservative talk show hosts who are holding him up for abuse. And he ultimately doesn’t seem to doubt the integrity of the American people, either.

“It’s not about our intelligence, it’s about our tastes,” he says of the American political climate. “For instance, other songs about 9/11. Bruce Springsteen’s record is very much Bruce being Bruce and attempting to empathize with people … and it’s genuine. I think Alan Jackson’s song is genuine,” he continues, pausing to search for an apt metaphor to carry the weight of his next statement. “In 1982 I was playing Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. I had this three-piece rockabilly band and we had a lot of skinny ties and jumped around a lot. They’re barely letting me live, and I want to get out of there alive, and I say, ‘Last night we played Dallas and it’s sure great to be back in Texas’ and the whole place [began cheering], and I played ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and I had them for 45 minutes. That’s what Toby Keith is doing. And Toby Keith is pandering. And, you know, it’s totally OK for him to pander, but it’s embarrassing to me that you can sell so many records doing that.”

Of course, the question that he’s most likely to hear ad nauseam, and one that a few of his critics presumed [Au: Okay?] to answer while he was out of the country, is why risk incurring the cumulative wrath of the American people if it can be avoided. “I wrote “John Walker’s Blues” because I have a 20-year-old son and that’s directly how I related to it. I didn’t do it just to piss people off,” he explains. “I was writing it going, ‘Oh shit! I’m gonna have to write this and … I’m going to end up talking to you,’” he says, looking at me with a smile. “I just wrote another song,” he continues with similar aplomb. “I deal with whatever I have to deal with to defend whatever I write… Welcome [the controversy]? No. I want to be able to make records and go out and play and then go fishing,” he says with typical modesty, seemingly belying the gravity he obviously places on his craft.

Of course, just the fact that so much attention is being paid attention to this one song is doing a grave injustice to a man whose art stretches well beyond the sphere of music. First, there’s Doghouse Roses, Earle’s book of short stories that received largely glowing reviews despite the occasional pan by a critic who thought hillbillies should stick to singing about cheating and drinking.

“The thing that made me mad [about the negative reviews] … was that they dismissed it as a vanity project, which it’s not. I’ve started a novel, and that’s the next project,” he says with a sense of indignation appropriate for someone who is seemingly always looking toward his next project.

Not only plying his trade as an author of prose, Earle has finished his first play, inspired by the life story of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in the state of Texas since 1863. “Hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt to write another play. It’s hard work,” he admits, going on to proclaim his admiration for the work of Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes whose Mud was performed at his Broad Axe Theater in Nashville, the same venue that will host his Karla in the fall. Interestingly, Earle has been dabbling in the art of acting, as well, appearing in three episodes of HBO’s The Wire.

“That was kind of a weird deal because I don’t want to be an actor…It was something that came to me that spoke to me in a way,” he says, going on to explain how producer David Simon is a fan and created a character for Earle to play. “The Wire is … a soap opera about the war on drugs. [It’s] a cop show but … you see people and characters on both sides. There aren’t any good guys. I play a recovering addict,” he explains. “I really thought what this show was saying was really important, so I did it for that reason. And it was fun,” he says, drawing parallels between acting and performing as a musician. “I’ll assume a character when I’m out there…. I have to get a game face on to go out there. And within an individual song I’m a Civil War soldier, and I’m John Walker, and I’m whoever I have to be,” he says, shedding some light on how he can so convincingly inhabit the worlds of those he’s never met.

Those who know Earle probably have seen an album such as Jerusalem coming for some time. Realistically, we all should have known an artist with both Earle’s political bent and general artistic fearlessness would have something to say that could upset the applecart of the current political climate. Ever since beckoning Woody Guthrie and legions of other 20th century political activist icons to return to save our modern society in El Corazon’s “Christmas in Washington,” he has taken it upon himself to carry on in their stead until they return from the great radical beyond. “I think I just come from a little deeper radical roots, and I moderated in the middle of my life when I started having kids, and then I woke up,” Earle explains. “I almost died and that makes you look at things in a more critical light, and I decided that I was right in the first place,” he says, calling back to his involvement as a 14-year-old in the antiwar movement. “That’s what “Christmas in Washington” was about, was me realizing that, hey, I was right in 1969. We were on the way to something better and we did drop the ball, and we can sit around and say ‘Oh, that’s a shame’ or we can start running our mouths off and trying to do something about it again.”

For Earle, Guthrie still serves as a powerful role model for his crusades against the death penalty and land mines.

“Woody ended up living in a time when we were doing exactly what we’re doing now, when we were suggesting that any questioning of what our leaders are doing is unpatriotic. And he paid for it,” he says. “We’re trying to attach the same stigma to Islam that we attached to communism in the 1950s, and I really believe that. I’ve watched people being racially profiled in airports … and I don’t care how scared we are, we owe it to ourselves to figure out how not to do that,” he explains in a dialogue fitting of a true Guthrie protégé. Still, the album might not have gotten made had not Artemis CEO Danny Goldman decided to approach Earle about making an overtly political album. “I would have made the record [anyway], but in this climate, odds are I’d be looking for a record deal just for trying to turn it in. I might have had to put it out myself,” he says before recounting how his own E-Squared label is currently existing only as an imprint and not capable of expanding its roster past the three already on it (Earle, Marah and Varnaline).

“My audiences have basically learned, even though they don’t always agree with me, and believe me, most people that buy my records, probably at best half of my audience agrees with me about the death penalty,” he says without irony. “But they’ve learned to respect my opinion … I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, and art is inherently political. This is my job; it’s what I’m supposed to do. I really do believe it was what I was made to do, and this is what I was given to work with—it’s this life and these times.”