It's interview day for Steve Earle, which means he's cooped up in his manager's office, shuttling from call to call, giving fifteen minutes here, twenty minutes there. He's not running for or from anything, but he's still on the run. "Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America," he intones at the start of the liner notes to Jerusalem, his latest and most politically fueled album. If at times his left-wing analysis sounds like a rehearsal for a Ralph Nader rally, his beliefs remain genuine and uncompromising. In his songs, they come alive as art.
How Earle manages what few politically motivated artists achieve -- art rather than propaganda -- owes to his skill and his risks. "Billy Austin," his first song about his most infamous cause, anti-death-penalty work, doesn't tell the story of a victim; it tells the story of one man doomed to die. Earle's character, a young man who killed for no reason, is certain he deserves the ultimate penalty. He only demands that those who judge him look him in the eye and pull the switch with a steady hand. By embodying a murderer, Earle's voice isn't just a dramatic vehicle; the singer refracts and then focuses the bitterest of truths about the choices we all make.
"Doing death-penalty work," Earle explains, "I learned that you'll never bring an end to the death penalty in the United States if you don't respect the pain and anger of murder victims' family members. We all became murder victims' family members on 9/11. Everyone took it personally, so many people died. It had never happened before. The 'It can't happen here' factor is strong. There are a lot of people, artists and nonartists, who would be speaking up now but aren't because they really are afraid of offending or dishonoring those who died in the attacks.
"But I still write more songs about girls than anything else," he quips.
He's right, but it's not his songs about girls that cut deepest. It's the cold but somehow compassionate eye he casts on the post-9/11 political wasteland. "I don't think Woody Guthrie was a political songwriter," Earle says. "He was a hillbilly singer who happened to live at a politically charged time -- and so do we."
Earle didn't start his career as a leftist, but even on his classic debut, Guitar Town, he tackled characters -- working-class kids, hillbilly rebels -- outside mainstream concerns. He came of age as a songwriter in the aftermath of the '60s counterculture, and he still views the civil-rights and anti-war movements as central to understanding where the nation is today. "We didn't believe Lee Harvey Oswald was alone, but we didn't do anything about it," he says of his generation. "Maybe we didn't accept what the Warren Commission said at the time. But that's how all this popular culture around what really happened grew. This term 'conspiracy theory' was coined, and time has gone by and we've revised our own history. Suddenly the very same people who were out in the street questioning everything in the '60s are now buying the Warren Commission -- because buying the Warren Commission report allows you to think everything is all right and allows you buy more stocks and trust that process. People are quiet now because they think the NASDAQ bubble is gonna reinflate, and they don't want to rock the boat."
The public fuss about Earle's post-9/11 album has centered on one song, "John Walker's Blues." Like "Billy Austin," the song is a first-person interior monologue; Earle doesn't just enter the American Taliban's psyche, he drags us in with him: "If my daddy could see me now -- chains around my feet/He don't understand that sometimes a man has to fight for what he believes."
It's not a comfortable place to stay as a listener, but comfort is the last thing on Earle's mind. "I have a twenty-year-old son," Earle says. "I really do believe it could have happened to him, or to your son. The point is that this is one of our children. We couldn't catch Osama bin Laden, so we did this kid twenty years."
Earle, a recovered drug addict, was imprisoned in 1994 for heroin possession and failure to appear in court. When he talks about the flaws in the judicial system, he knows whereof he speaks: "Twenty years is a long fucking time for what [John Walker Lindh] did. He didn't kill anybody, not that we know of. He hasn't been accused of killing anybody. And if they had a shred of evidence to convict him of treason they would have, but they didn't. I was locked up with people who got half that amount for killing someone.
"You always have to consider the source," Earle says of the attacks on him and "John Walker's Blues." "Overall, the reviews of this record have been really good, I'm selling almost as many records as my last album at this point. I got nominated for a Grammy. The people who reacted negatively were the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. If I had received a negative reaction [from families of the 9/11 attacks], I would have understood it, but it wouldn't have stopped me. By the same token, I wasn't worried about [Crossfire co-host] Tucker Carlson's reaction to 'John Walker's Blues.' I was worried about John Walker's parents' reaction. Even that wouldn't stop me from writing the song, though I did think about it. If I heard from his parents, I wouldn't tell you. Those people have been through enough. But you know, that's where all the work, the hard part of creating art, comes from, making those kinds of decisions. The only time I would censor myself is if I caught myself pandering. Someone even suggested that I was doing what I was doing to sell records. It's pretty easy to figure out that if that's what you want, you do what Toby Keith did."
With all the heavy weather made about Earle's politics, it's too easy to overlook his deceptively adventurous music. With every album since his 1995 post-prison comeback, Earle has tested himself sonically, fusing his hillbilly snarl and working class ethos with psychedelic rock, bluegrass, speed grunge and roller-rink soul. He doesn't worry about writing original melodies; instead, he nicks his tunes with the artfulness of an unrepentant ex-con.
"The biggest rule about writing songs or writing anything," he says, "is that the mediocre borrow, and the people who are really fucking good at it steal with impunity. We are way down the line in the history of Western music to come up with something truly original. The way you make it your own, that's an intangible. 'I Ain't Ever Satisfied,' I stole that from 'The Walls Came Down' by the Call. I stole 'I Feel All Right' from 'Birth, School, Work, Death' by the Godfathers. The first interview I did when I got of jail was with Geoffrey Himes, and he said, 'Do you realize that "I Feel All Right" is the same chords as "Gloria?"' It's, like, duhhhh...."