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Free Radical 

Country maverick Steve Earle vs. the Nashville machine

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
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Photo by Glen Rose

"LATELY I FEEL LIKE THE LONELIEST MAN IN America," writes Steve Earle in the liner notes of his most recent album, Jerusalem (Artemis). He goes on to contrast recent events with the era of his youth — Vietnam, race riots, federal spying and prosecution of dissidents, the "America: Love It or Leave It" attitude. While the songs on the record confront our current reign of McFascism, Earle reassures us that "We're working with a net" known as the Constitution and that American radicals such as John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were true patriots who fought for the principles laid out in that document "by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."

There are millions of Americans feeling as tied up and gagged as Bobby Seale was in a Chicago courtroom 33 years ago, and few who have access to mainstream media to speak for us. Thankfully, we have a 47-year-old recovering dope fiend and defiant country rocker who eloquently rages against the injustices of Enronomics, the death penalty and the erosion of free speech — as an activist, author, playwright and actor whose primary occupation is singer-songwriter. In this darkest of hours, Earle has the conviction and skill to turn a refusal to be fooled again into great popular music.

"Nobody should go hungry in the richest country in the world — period," said the self-professed "borderline Marxist" during a recent chat in Los Angeles. "It pisses me off. I don't believe the United States has the purest form of democracy in the world, and I hate that we teach our children that. I think it limits us."

At the suggestion of Artemis Records chief and civil-liberties advocate Danny Goldberg, Earle, who'd written songs with political themes before, made an album almost entirely devoted to commenting on the depressing state of this country and the world. Transforming tragedy into seamless art, Jerusalem is transcendently uplifting. It also rocks hard, like the Rolling Stones when they mattered. String the descriptions together — left-wing, country singer from Texas, hard rock — and you begin to get the picture of the maverick Steve Earle.

MCA RECORDS RELEASED EARLE'S FIRST ALBUM, Guitar Town, in 1986. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart, stayed there for 66 weeks and got nominated for two Grammys; Earle was named top country artist by Rolling Stone. The last honor was due in part because the album obliterated genres. It had the musical chops and hillbilly heart of country but the serrated edge and shitty attitude of punk, and a lot of those who dug it were rock fans. The iconoclast confounded an industry run on simplistic mediocrity: "I still have a problem of people knowing what bin to put my records in and where to look for them. It confused the computers to put me in more than one bin."

Despite Guitar Town's left-field success, the powers that be in Nashville did not want the manure stirred up. Earle recalls that he and MCA Nashville chief Jimmy Bowen "butted heads from jump street." They fought over material and production, forcing an irate Earle to secretly fly to L.A. to meet MCA honcho Irving Azoff "and enlist him on my behalf to get Jimmy Bowen off my ass." On his way out here, he ran into ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon, who warned him that "'Irving Azoff is the devil. Be very, very careful.' I was cocky and didn't believe him, but it turned out to be true." Azoff shifted Earle to the newly formed MCA-owned rock label Uni. Soon afterward, Azoff let Uni die, and Earle's future with it. Earle had just released Copperhead Road, his third album and a flat-out classic. "Copperhead sold — according to MCA's accounting — 460,000 records and change in its first year of release, and then it never sold another album until about two years ago," says Earle, laughing. "I was getting played on rock radio, I was getting videos played, all the pieces were in place." He released two more excellent albums on MCA proper, but at the same time got further into a habit he'd developed in his teens — heroin.

By 1991, Earle was strung out in Los Angeles, cut off from the music biz and the rest of the planet. "I was somewhere between Larchmont Village and Hoover and Alvarado all day. I didn't have a guitar. I didn't listen to music except for hip-hop, because unfortunately, the way you find drugs in strange cities is you go to the poorest neighborhood, and we live in a society where an inordinate number of poor people are people of color." His consequential appreciation of hip-hop was a rare positive at a negative point. "It's genuinely folk music. The best stuff is where a kid gets hold of sophisticated digital gear, throws the manual away and starts pushin' buttons. It's the same as finding a banjo and making up your own tuning for it. I dig it."

After making his way back to Music City, Earle got popped twice in '94, did brief jail time and sought rehab. "But I had to pay for it myself — there weren't dollars. Very few people got treatment. I think we're fighting the war on drugs the same way we fought Vietnam. It's about producing arrest statistics so politicians can appear like they're doing something."

Clean and sober, Earle has released seven albums in seven years, authored a collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses, and co-founded the BroadAxe Theater, a company in Nashville that recently produced Karla, a play he wrote about executed Texan Karla Fay Tucker; he also played the part of a recovering addict on HBO's The Wire. He's been an activist on behalf of the international campaign to ban land mines, as well as in the case of the West Memphis 3, for Vietnam vets and against the death penalty. His music has been uniformly excellent, but Jerusalem is his finest work since Copperhead Road. Using the disputed capital of Israel as a metaphor for the human race, and taking on HMOs, the prison-industrial complex, Wall Street, conspiracy theories, drugs and maquiladoras, he rose to the challenge of making a topical album with unforgettable melodies and scrunchy guitars.

LAST SUMMER, TWO MONTHS PRIOR TO JERUSALEM's release, neo-book-burners had hissy fits when they heard about one of the album's cuts, "John Walker's Blues," an empathic but hardly laudatory re-creation of what may have been going through the deluded head of American Taliban John Walker Lindh. In their confusion of art and advocacy, nattering nabobs accused Earle of being "the Jane Fonda of the war on terrorism" and claimed that "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" (the latter headline from the entertainingly pea-brained New York Post). "No intelligent person didn't understand that I was just singing in character," says Earle. "All I was trying to do was humanize him."

Earle's death-penalty activism led to correspondence with death-row inmates and witnessing the 1998 execution of one of his pen pals, convicted murderer Jonathan Nobles. When asked about the experience, he looks weary. "I can't describe it in detail, because I don't have the energy to do it anymore. It was very surreal. I was really surprised at the empathy that I had for the people that participated in the execution. It was obvious to me that they were being harmed, too. My main objection to the death penalty isn't about trying to save anybody on death row. If this is a democracy and the government kills somebody, then I'm killing somebody. I object to the damage it does to my spirit."

Earle's spirit tells him to defy expectations. "I believe everything Karl Marx said about economics; I just happen to believe in God." That's not a statement you'll hear from many Americans, much less one raised in Schertz, Texas. One of Earle's nuggets is "I Ain't Ever Satisfied," written when he was in his early 30s; it's the quintessential malcontent's anthem. Is the nearing-50 renaissance rebel satisfied yet?

"No. I'm just not as hard on myself. I don't expect to be able to apply revolutionary ideas to the democratic process in the United States. But I demand — because the Constitution says I may demand — that I am allowed to be a radical and to participate in the process as a radical. I'm not a liberal. I'm a radical."

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