Steve Earle's contradictions

Steve Earle

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 26, 2004) -- Steve Earle is anything if not a man of contradictions. The Texas native moved to Nashville and worked his way up through the ranks of the conventional music industry headquartered there to become a very unconventional country music star in the mid-1980s. The rugged, working-class hero then all but destroyed his own career through the most exaggerated rock ‘n’ roll excess, working his way through a half-dozen wives and countless thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and heroin, literally disappearing for months at a time and leaving his manager and record company with no one to manage or promote.

After hitting bottom -- which included being arrested in a drug raid in which he nearly accidentally killed a police officer, for which he subsequently spent time in prison -- Earle came back in the mid-1990s and released a series of albums which cast him in an entirely new light – as a socially and politically outspoken, rock singer-songwriter who occasionally delved into folk, bluegrass, country and blues and sang with fervent nostalgia about heroes including Woody Guthrie, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Emma Goldman. The biker and self-confessed gun aficionado campaigned widely for abolition of the death penalty and even wrote a play about Texas death row inmate Karla Fay Tucker.

Earle’s self-contradictions were probably nowhere more evident – and more creatively fruitful – than on his last studio album, “Jerusalem” (Artemis), which came out in September, 2002, nearly a year to the day after 9/11. They also were never as controversial. On the one hand his most patriotic album – “In a big way this is the most pro-American record I’ve ever made,” he writes on his official website – it included the song “John Walker’s Blues,” an empathetic, first-person sketch of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County teenager who went to Afghanistan and signed on with Taliban jihadists.

The song provoked a huge backlash against Earle, as chronicled in “Just an American Boy,” a 2003 concert documentary by director Amos Poe that includes performances of 18 of his best-known songs and a timely, rollicking version of the Nick Lowe classic, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Lost in the controversy over “John Walker’s Blues,” which many heard as an apologia for a traitor, were two things: Earle’s artful use of narrative empathy – which is different from Earle’s own feelings about Walker -- and the recording’s sheer beauty, with a haunting melody and mumbled phrasing that aptly captured Walker’s confused state of mind as it was clouded by the call to prayer of the muezzin.

“I don’t condone what he did,” writes Earle about Lindh on his website. “Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too. But there are circumstances. Walker was from a very bohemian household, from Marin County. His father had just come out of the closet. It’s hard to say how that played out in Walker’s mind. He went to Yemen because that’s where they teach the purest kind of Arabic. He didn’t just sit on the couch and watch the box, get depressed and complain. He was a smart kid, he graduated from high school early, the culture here didn’t impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in.”

The song’s strength is also its flaw. Too subtle for pop music, “John Walker’s Blues” only succeeded inflaming feelings that were ready and ripe for inflaming. But that’s perhaps why Earle is such an apt choice to headline Mass MoCA’s season opening concert for “The Interventionist: Art in the Social Sphere,” this Sunday, May 30, at 7:30. The concert, to be held in the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts, will also feature folksinger Odetta and poet/preacher Carl Hancock Rux.

“I don’t have a problem with the existence of the right, but the right has a problem with my existence,” Earle told an interviewer from Editor and Publisher magazine last year. “We just have a different definition of patriotism.”

The songs on “Jerusalem,” as those on previous albums including “Transcendental Blues” and in songs like “Christmas in Washington,” are anything if not the anguished cries of a patriotic American in mourning over the perceived loss of constitutional liberties. “My patriotism is centered around the Constitution,” says Earle at one point in “Just an American Boy.” “I think it’s the best part of us.”

One of the key figures of the folk revival of the late-1950s and early 1960s, Odetta, who got her start in musical theater, was one of the first to garner musical respect and dignity for traditional folk, blues and spirituals, as well as finding common ground among genres that were often kept segregated. She was a key influence on the generation that followed, and musicians including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading have paid tribute to her example. At Mass MoCA, Odetta will be accompanied by a pianist.

Rux, who will perform accompanied by a drummer and a video artist, is a poet and spoken-word artist who grew up in Harlem and attended Columbia University. Named “one of 30 artists under the age of 30 most likely to influence culture over the next 30 years” by the New York Times, he has been featured on the cover of The Village Voice as “one of eight writers on the verge of impacting the literary landscape,” and is frequently compared to predecessors including Jim Morrison and Gil Scott-Heron.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 28, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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