How does it feel to be vilified as a Taliban-loving, self-hating American?
That's a question not only for John Walker Lindh but also for Steve Earle, the Grammy-nominated country-roots-and-rock musician. His new album, Jerusalem, contains a track called "John Walker's Blues" that sent red-white-and-blue fur flying in July when word leaked of its existence. A Nashville radio talk-show host immediately began excoriating Earle, who lives in the area, for being in "the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America." The New York Post published a piece, headlined "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat," that claimed Earle's tune "glorified" Walker as "Jesus-like." On Paula Zahn's CNN morning show, the talking heads shook their heads at Earle and wondered aloud, What was he thinking? One half-jokingly suggested he needed bodyguards (a remark that freaked out Earle's mother, who happened to be watching).
The critics were wrong. In the dirgelike song--which features Earle's cigs-and-whiskey voice over sparse, guitar-driven instrumentation and is written in the first person--Earle's Walker hopes if he dies in service to Allah, "I'll rise up to the sky/Just like Jesus, peace be upon him." This is a character study, not an endorsement--sympathetic only in the sense that it examines what may have motivated a 20-year-old American guy to turn to Islam and jihad.
The dust-up landed Earle in the pages of Newsweek, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Time, and he got to play the song on the Today show and Greta van Susteren's program on the Fox News Channel. ("Matt Lauer looked really uncomfortable," Earle recalls.) By the time the disc was released by Artemis Records in late September, though, much of the "John Walker's Blues" controversy had petered out. Thin mischaracterization can fuel a to-do for only so long. Reviews, most of which mentioned the Walker business, were positive, with the notable exception of the New York Post's, which still insisted that Earle was praising Lindh. The Post's reviewer also groused that "harsher critics might even say he's spitting on" the graves of the 9/11 victims. (Huh?) "I'm framing that review," Earle replies.
So after recently taping a syndicated public radio show in a South Philadelphia recording studio--and after dashing out to smoke a cigarette behind a dumpster--Earle ambles over to Geno's for a cheesesteak sandwich, shrugging off the Walker frenzy and the insults hurled at him. Scratching his salt-and-pepper beard, the 47-year-old Earle says, "I had expected it. I knew people would wig out. When I saw Walker on TV, I thought, 'They're going to do this guy.' It was scapegoating, and that's always ugly and usually dangerous. Here was a body they had, while Osama bin Laden was still on the loose. I didn't figure anyone else was going to write this song. Believe me, it's not the kind of thing you do without thinking about."
At the time, Earle was in the middle of putting together an album exploring political themes. He describes his own politics as "really, really hard left.... I believe everything Karl Marx said about economics. I really do believe capitalism is fundamentally oppressive because it requires a surplus of labor in order to thrive. I hate the two-party system. I am a borderline Marxist. We need a state income tax in Tennessee--and it's not going to hurt anyone more than it hurts me. I don't trust the market to take care of everybody. But I trust the Constitution. I voted for Gore because I didn't trust Nader on the whole vote-swapping thing, and, ultimately, I'm pretty pragmatic."
Until now, his political views have not had much obvious impact on his artistic output. Through his career, Earle--the son of a Texas air traffic controller who lost his job when President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981--has been mostly a storyteller, not a soapbox preacher. His initial success in the music business came as a songwriter in Nashville, and his songs--gritty and tender--have been recorded by Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Chrissie Hynde and others. His first album, Guitar Town, reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard's country chart in 1986. Since then, he has sold records and collected accolades (including six Grammy nominations) in various guises--as a growling redneck rocker ("Copperhead Road" was a hit about a backwoods marijuana grower), as a folkish Texas-style troubadour, as an old-timey bluegrass picker and singer, and as a 1960s-psychedelic-loving rock-and-roller. Since his return in the mid-1990s from a five-year drugs-and-booze sabbatical--which nearly left him dead and landed him in jail and a prison rehab program--the eclectic, genre-bending, in-recovery Earle has recorded half a dozen albums and developed a steady and devoted following.
His off-the-albums politics have been no secret. For years, he has been an anti-death penalty activist, appearing at rallies and meetings on Capitol Hill. He has written and recorded several lyrical songs about capital punishment. (One of these, "Ellis Unit One," appeared on the album accompanying the film Dead Man Walking.) The video for his song "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," which came out in 2000, flashed mug shots of the 140 men and women executed in Texas while George W. Bush was governor, and an endnote reported that Bush had vetoed legislation to provide better legal resources to poor people charged with a capital offense. "Finding outlets to play it was impossible," Earle says. He has also helped raise bucks and attention for the international campaign against landmines and participated in several Farm Aid concerts.