It was hardly a surprise that my favorite songwriter/actor/novelist Steve Earle got involved in activism surrounding the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last week. He was among the many celebrities who signed the petition calling on the state to grant Davis clemency. Earle told an interviewer, “My deal with Troy Davis and everybody else like that is: I’m opposed to the death penalty for anybody. It’s a big deal, that possibility of a person being innocent and being executed.” But politicians afraid to look weak keep the death penalty in place in America, he charged.
Earle, now 56, is no latecomer to the cause.
In fact, he has probably been the most consistently outraged and active in the musical world (especially with the passing of Johnny Cash) since the early 1990s when he penned his first protest song, “Billy Austin.” Later he wrote “Ellis Unit One” about prison personnel “putting down” prisoners in Texas (it was used for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) and then “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” about a death row prisoner he befriended. That man, Jonathan Nobles, asked Steve to witness his execution, and Earle agreed to do it—a rarity among celebrities—and, then wrote about it brilliantly (as I recount in my new e-book, Dead Reckoning).
Earle, who spent his own stint in prison on drug charges, has also performed at numerous anti–death penalty benefits and joined activists camping out overnight outside the US Supreme Court. In 2010 Earle was awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star of Abolition award.
I interviewed Earle (one of my favorite songwriters going back to “Guitar Town”) about all of this a few years ago, and in meeting him a couple of times since he always brings me up to date on his efforts—although he’s also been very active in Farm Aid and with the Stop Landmines campaign, among others. He even had a weekly show on Air America a few years back. And in December he will sing and talk (along with wife Allison Moorer) during The Nation’s annual cruise
Somehow Earle has found time to move to New York City and Woodstock with swell singer Moorer, appear as an actor in The Wire and Treme (though he got killed off in a key plot point last season), and keep on touring and recording (his tribute to Townes Van Zandt won him another Grammy).
A few years ago, I was delighted when Steve told me that he was working on a novel—he had just published a collection of short stories—loosely inspired by the infamous “Dr. Toby” who “treated” Hank Williams just before he died at the age of 29. That resulted in Steve’s new novel, with the title taken from Hank’s final single, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (also the title of Earle’s latest CD).