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.
It was not out of nowhere, then, that Danny Goldberg, an ACLU board member who is president and founder of Artemis Records, Earle’s current label, called up Earle shortly after Bush landed in the White House and said, How about writing a political album? “Part of the reason was commerce,” Earle explains. “How do you separate the next album from the last one? The conversation began the same way every conversation I’ve ever had with a record company executive [has]: ‘I don’t want to tell you how to make records, but…’ But I do listen to Danny because I don’t have to apologize to him for being opposed to the death penalty. I’ve been told by Irving Azoff [onetime head of MCA Records], by Jimmy Bowen [an influential recording executive in Nashville], that if I kept my mouth shut about different things I could sell more records. Not Danny. And he felt this was a way to make a record distinct from the last one, which was mostly chick songs. I waved him off and said, ‘I’ll see.'” Earle was busy with running his own independent record company (E-Squared) and writing fiction. He’s published a collection of short stories, is working on a novel and has written a play about Karla Faye Tucker, who in 1998 became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. (He also recently acted in three episodes of HBO’s The Wire and opened a theater company in Nashville.) He wasn’t even planning to work on an album anytime soon.
Then came September 11–and Goldberg’s suggestion suddenly made sense to Earle. He already had a few songs in the can, including “What’s a Simple Man to Do?” (a bouncing, Farfisa organ-dominated tune about a Mexican fellow laid off at a maquiladora who, out of desperation, becomes a drug mule and ends up in an American jail) and “The Truth” (an eerie, banjo-tinged number about an imprisoned criminal who, pondering the effects of incarceration, muses, “For every wall you build around your fear/A thousand darker things are born in here/And they’re fed on contempt for all that you hold dear”). He had also written “Conspiracy Theory,” an r&b-influenced song suggesting, à la Oliver Stone, that JFK was blown away by a cabal and that had he lived, Vietnam would not have become such a mess. And sitting around was “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” a rant against the healthcare industry driven by a Rolling Stones-like riff. Earle says he wrote the track for the film John Q., in which Denzel Washington plays a factory worker who holds a hospital hostage after his HMO won’t OK a heart transplant for his sick son. “Nick Cassavetes [the director] asked me for a song,” Earle recalls. “Knowing Hollywood as I do, I wrote one about the relationship between the father and the son. I figured they would accept that. It never occurred to me to do a political piece. He came back and said, ‘No, I want a Steve Earle song, something really political.'” Earle responded with a song blasting HMOs, American complacency toward inequities in medical care, the war on drugs and gated communities. “Nick said, ‘That’s great; it’s going over the end credits,'” Earle says. “But September 11 happened and they stopped returning my phone calls. Finally, they said it couldn’t be in the film, that in this climate it could be seen as too critical of the Bush Administration and everything.”
After September 11, the first new track in Earle’s notebook was “Ashes to Ashes,” a dark rock song that reminds the listener that all things must pass–dinosaurs, humanity and, probably, America (“It’s always best to keep it in mind/that every tower ever built tumbles”). “Jerusalem,” the title track, cautions against viewing the Middle East conflict with cynicism (“The man on the TV told me that it had always been that way/And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say”). And when Earle, who is the father of several children, including a 20-year-old son, saw an arrested Lindh on the TV, he felt the anguish of Walker’s parents and questioned the rush to turn Lindh into a sacrificial lamb. “Artists and politicians are afraid of dishonoring the memory of the people who died and of offending their families,” Earle says. “That’s a real fear. It’s not bullshit. I thought about it before I wrote ‘John Walker’s Blues.’ But I decided that he had fuck-all to do with September 11, and I could take the flak. My only purpose was to humanize him. I happen to be more afraid of damage to my civil liberties than I am of another terrorist attack.”
Many reviews have dubbed Jerusalem “political.” Which raises the question: What makes for political pop art? On no song does Earle advocate a particular policy. “Jerusalem” says nothing about who’s right or wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Amerika v. 6.0” jabs at healthcare US-style from the left, but it suggests no alternative. (What rhymes with “single payer”?) “Ashes to Ashes” implies that the United States won’t be top dog forever and might want to act accordingly, but it does not have to be heard that way. (“If we contribute anything lasting at all,” Earle says, “it will be jazz, rock and roll, and our Constitution. This document is hipper than [the Founders] intended it to be. Sometimes it’s ignored and it’s been beaten to shit–especially recently.”) The album contains no shots at John Ashcroft or explicit critiques of US foreign policy–though Earle is delighted to oblige in interviews. And the disc does offer a couple of his “chick songs.” Still, the conservative Weekly Standard attacked the album as a “juvenile” political statement, while hailing its music as better than that of Bruce Springsteen’s September 11 offering, The Rising.
The album might more fairly be termed “topical”–in that several songs reference the stuff of headlines and cable-TV debates. It seems, though, that if a musician-songwriter directly acknowledges current affairs, many consider it a political act. “I don’t think of myself as a political writer,” says Earle. “But then I don’t think of Woody Guthrie as a political writer. He was a writer who lived in very political times. And our times have become politically supercharged. We have had a period where capitalism has been allowed to run rampant, and people have suffered for it. And we’re at war and going to war. But as Pete Seeger said, all songs are political to somebody. Lullabies are political to babies. Even a baby has an agenda–he wants to go to sleep or he doesn’t.”
When Earle started working on Jerusalem, he feared “a political album would be boring.” But the disc–whether seen by his audience as political or not–hit the charts strongly. It debuted at 59 on the Billboard Top 200, and was No. 1 on Billboard’s indie chart, No. 7 on the country chart, and No. 12 on the Internet sales chart–a takeoff consistent with his last major album. “I’m a hillbilly singer with delusions of grandeur,” Earle says, with a guffaw. “My guess is that we’re at a real critical point in history, so there might be more political art for a while. When I don’t feel completely overwhelmed with the need to do this, I’ll get bored and write about other things. There’s always stuff to write about–and it comes with and without politics.”