An enlightened twang

Jul 9, 2003 at 12:00 am

Like any red-blooded American good ol’ boy, Steve Earle is equal parts patriot and baseball fan. For the good of the country, if not the game, he would like to see our esteemed president, George W. Bush, immediately become the commissioner of baseball. We’d all be safer then.

“I’ve never seen anyone die on a baseball diamond,” the iconic country-blues troubadour-cum-political activist says with a rueful chuckle.

A moment later, his smile evaporates and he leans forward to make a more trenchant point.

“We’re living in the most dangerous times since the end of the Cold War,” he says. “We’re perched on the brink of a war on Islam. When we set ourselves up on a higher moral ground, we’re comparing gods.”

Earle is no godless pagan. He believes there is a benevolent deity out there somewhere, “and it ain’t me.” If he were to embrace any organized religion, he says, it would probably be Buddhism, “because you don’t have to declare a major.”

Earle sits in a dark corner of an Auburn Hills hotel lobby, hours before he’s to take the stage on a bill headlined by Jackson Browne. He’s shaved the full beard but has a couple days’ stubble. He’s also shaved about 40 pounds on a low-carb diet. He wears an olive T-shirt emblazoned with a simple red star. He sips a Diet Dr Pepper.

I’ve been told he doesn’t relish interviews, but there’s no sign of celebrity surliness. He’s pontificating animatedly and at times hilariously about the planet and the people who control it. He’s exceedingly well-read and possesses the proverbial steel-trap mind. Steve Earle would kick ass on “Jeopardy.”

I’ve long admired Earle’s new traditionalist songcraft, which is genuine, relevant and earthy without being preachy. Call it enlightened twang. During the ’80s, he established himself as the darling of the organic country music set. Then he established himself as a junkie and a jailbird before getting sober and, in my mind, re-emerging as one of the most important artists alive today.

I realize that’s a mouthful. Kindly indulge my hyperbole and consider this: At a time when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. pundits and Clear Channel’s minions are poised to pounce on anything resembling dissent from entertainers, Earle speaks louder and clearer than anyone else on the landscape. Sadly, he speaks with more conviction and efficacy than anyone on Capitol Hill.

The longtime crusader against capital punishment understands that he’s got carte blanche. “I’m preaching to the choir to a certain extent,” he says. His activism will not hurt record sales, because his fans know his bent, and his songs aren’t heard on mainstream radio stations anyway.

They ought to be, because they are exquisite.

Earle’s 2002 record Jerusalem is one of the most astonishing and moving documents I’ve encountered. The Grammy-nominated disc is a judicious mélange of political harangue, apocalyptic prophesy and spiritual balm. Its music is as beguiling as it is frightening. Told in Earle’s authoritative drawl, Jerusalem mainlines into the cerebral cortex and proceeds to hector your conscience. To hear his sneer is to ponder repentance.

The opening lines from a song called “Conspiracy Theory:” “What if I told you it was done with mirrors/ What if I showed you it was all a lie/ Better be careful someone might hear ya/ The walls have ears and the sky has eyes.” This song was recorded long before the Bush administration spewed fiction to justify the conquest of Iraq and the deaths of tens of thousands.

In “Amerika vs. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” Earle bemoans the death of idealism while indicting the commodification of life itself: “There’s doctors down on Wall Street sharpenin’ their scalpels and tryin’ to cut a deal/ Meanwhile, back at the hospital, we got accountants playin’ god and countin’ out the pills.”

Another Jerusalem cut, “John Walker’s Blues,” is an imagined inner monologue from the so-called “American Taliban,” the man-child who was captured in Afghanistan and is now doing 20 years in prison for aiding the enemy: “If my daddy could see me now — chains around my feet/ He don’t understand that sometimes a man/ Has to fight for what he believes.” The song fades out to the beautifully haunting strains of a Moslem prayer.

Predictably, poseur patriots rushed to brand Earle un-American. He tells me he merely wanted to explore a side of Walker that our culture seems incapable of considering, let alone grasping — that Walker was a naive kid from the Marin County lap of luxury who wound up in the clutches of people we won’t comprehend.

Earle knows he’s a contrarian. He doesn’t see himself as a hero.

“The real bravery comes when somebody does speak out and says something like Natalie Maines did,” Earle says of the Dixie Chicks lead singer who told a foreign audience that she and her bandmates were ashamed of Dubya’s warmongering. She wound up apologizing.

“This is somebody who innocently and maybe a little clumsily spoke out, and they literally were threatened with the loss of their livelihoods by one entity. Clear Channel owns every major country station in every major market in the country.”

Clear Channel’s Texas chieftains, it should be noted, control 1,200 radio stations and book thousands of live shows each year. They are also cheek by jowl with Bush and his mandarins.

“This wasn’t a programming decision,” Earle says of the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and others who dare question Bush. “It was an executive decision.”

Clear Channel’s evisceration of radio’s soul — domestic listenership is at a 27-year low — is but one symptom of many that plague our information culture, Earle believes.

“Our media has become whatever will sell the most stuff,” he says.

When it quashes dissent and punishes artists who air unpopular political views, he adds, “I think it’s starting to get dangerous.”

He admires the fortitude displayed by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who has excoriated U.S. imperialism. (Earle attended Pearl Jam’s Palace show the night before we talked.)

“People expect it [dissent] from me and Eddie and Billy Bragg,” Earle says. “We write about this stuff in our music.”

Earle plans to help artists and activists amplify their voices through a new organization called Festive Revolution, whose Web site ( spells out the mission: “Festive Revolution Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating artists about how to mobilize their art and their fan base for social and political change through ongoing educational programs and activities, including but not limited to an annual three-day Art and Activism Workshop.” The first conference is slated for Aug. 20-24 in Nashville. Earle tells me actor Sean Penn, who has written passionately about the state of the union, will attend.

Bush can be unseated, Earle says, if folks get off their backsides. He cites the protests that occurred before the invasion of Iraq. He notes the popularity of Michael Moore’s books and his film, Bowling For Columbine, as evidence that Americans are restless, even skeptical. But will they mobilize? “Where are those people when it comes time to vote?” he asks.

Earle does not view American military adventurism as solely a quest for the lifeblood of capitalism — petroleum.

“It’s not about oil,” he says. “It’s about world domination. I believe there’s a right-wing conspiracy and I believe there’s a left-wing conspiracy. The right-wingers happen to be the ones in power right now, and they do have an agenda. And they aren’t just talking about it. They’re doing it.”

Earle has fallen in love with Ireland, and has considered moving there. But current events are certain to delay his migration.

“I make an embarrassing amount of money, and I could probably pull some strings and emigrate,” he says. “That’s why I really hate this administration. All this is fucking up my plan to become an expat. I can’t see leaving when all this is going on.”

Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]