Steve Earle: Country Radical

The Nashville renegade has one of the year's best albums with the Bush-bashing 'The Revolution Starts Now'

Steve Earle during Return To Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons at Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California, July 10th, 2004.( Credit: Lee Celano/WireImage/Getty

Singer-songwriter Steve Earle does not mention George W. Bush by name anywhere on The Revolution Starts Now. But nearly every song on Earle's new album is dedicated, in moral energy and story line, to Bush's defeat in November's presidential election. That includes the cantina-folk indictment "Rich Man's War"; "Home to Houston," a country romp about an American truck driver in Iraq praying that he survives his next run; and the guitar firebomb "F the CC," which is pretty self-explanatory.

"I'm an unapologetic lefty," Earle declares in his high-speed Texas drawl, over cappuccino in a New York hotel. "There is no excuse for anyone to go hungry in the richest country in the world or without health care. I wanted the record to be about a lot of issues around the election. But I wrote it in a hurry, and what I'm most pissed about right now is the war."

The son of an air-traffic controller, Earle, 49, has been making protest music all his life. Born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and raised in San Antonio, he sang against the Vietnam War as a teenager. After a decade of struggle in Nashville and vital songwriting lessons from country outlaws Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Earle made his 1986 debut, Guitar Town, a Number One country album and a masterpiece of personal politics, a rough guide to blue-collar life and love. The commercial success did not last. Earle's downward spiral into drug addiction made him a pariah in Nashville, cost him six marriages and, in 1994, briefly landed him in jail on possession.

Clean for the last ten years, Earle is active in campaigns against land mines and the death penalty and has continued to sing fearlessly about economic and social injustice on more than a dozen acclaimed albums. In "John Walker's Blues," a sober reflection on the life and fate of captured American Taliban John Walker Lindh, included on the 2002 release Jerusalem, Earle confronted the post-9/11 thirst for vengeance — and spit in the eye of the hysterical right-wing media. But Earle says that Revolution — his best full-tilt-rock album in years — is not just an angry record: "It's immediate. And it's about democracy — 'Don't tell me this is not open for discussion.'"

Were the songs on the new album all written for and during this election year?
This record was about a deadline. No one could have predicted the amount of damage Bush would do to this country in four years. I wouldn't have believed it. I thought, "Oh, God, another idiot. We survived his father, though. We can survive this." But this is a totally different beast. I wrote "The Revolution Starts Now" last year at the end of a tour. Then I went to Australia in April; I wrote "Rich Man's War" on that run. And not getting those two songs out before the election — I couldn't live with that. We got back to Nashville and started the record. I woke up every morning with a blank sheet of paper and writing a song. By two o'clock the next morning, we had the completed track.

You and Bush are both former substance abusers. He was an alcoholic; you were a drug addict. Do you see any of yourself in him?
I find it painful, but I do. You suffer a lot of damage to your spirit in the process of becoming an addict, because you have to lie. You have to be fundamentally dishonest. There's no way that George Bush wasn't coming home, lying to his wife every single night, like I was. I don't judge him for it. But I recognize it. But the way he does things is totally based on never admitting that you're wrong, no matter what. People who are pro-Bush think that's cool. Those of us who are opposed see that as a weakness. Yeah, I believe this war is unjust, immoral and a dismal failure. But I'm always willing to admit that I'm wrong. I would love for someone to prove that I am wrong about where this administration is taking us. I don't think I am.

Can you move the unconverted with this album, or are you just rallying the faithful?
I'm preaching to the choir to some extent. And my audience doesn't agree with me on everything. I've lost the odd person. But I've had more people tell me, "You changed my mind about the death penalty" than I've had people saying, "Fuck you." I speak for people other than myself, which is presumptuous. But it is my job. "Rich Man's War" is about somebody in a position I'll never be in. "F the CC" is rhetoric — that's me. But the song is based in fact. The Federal Communications Commission exists to take care of the air-waves for me. That's what its charter says, and I'm taking it at face value. I'm holding their feet to the fire on it.

What did you achieve with "John Walker's Blues," besides enraging conservatives?
A lot of smart people didn't get that I didn't agree with what John Walker Lindh did. I just had a problem with scapegoating. And I have a son that age. That's really why I wrote the song. I thought, "This guy has parents. They've gotta be sick over this."

The song made me feel like I hadn't sat by and not said anything. Having the balls to sing it, in that atmosphere, may have made people less afraid to speak out about other things. Somebody's gotta get into the swimming pool first.

I couldn't not do it. The song fell in my lap. [Blues singer] Mance Lipscomb used to call them "sky songs." That, song chose me. And I was taught by the people who showed me how to write songs that no way in the world do you ever go, "Oh, I'm not writing that one."

How political were your parents?
They were Democrats, old-fashioned Lyndon Johnson types. They supported the Vietnam War until I started getting closer to draft age. My father was horrified because I was active against the war when I was fourteen, fifteen. The first time I played for more than twenty people was a rally in front of the Alamo that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War put together.

What did you sing?
"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" [by Country Joe and the Fish]. I was fifteen. The other anti-war activists I knew in town were the hippies at the Gatehouse, this coffeehouse where I played. The main thing that radicalized me was that I wasn't old enough to play in places that served liquor. I played coffeehouses and listened to songwriters, rather than getting a Marshall amplifier. Then I met Townes Van Zandt when I was sixteen.

He was an unlikely mentor, in that he never wrote topical songs. What did you learn from him?
To quote Townes, you write "for the sake of the song" — and no other reason. I ran across this creature making art with absolutely no regard for how big or small his audience was, or even who was in his audience. He made the art for himself.

Yet you went to Nashville in the mid-Seventies, the commercial and conservative capital of country music.
It's where the best songwriters were. I could go to L.A., but what were my chances of meeting Tom Waits or Randy Newman? In Nashville, you could see Townes or Guy Clark, even Neil Young passing through. I was on my way to New York when I first went to Nashville. I never got any further.

How different would your music be now if you'd made it all the way to CBGB?
I missed the punk thing when it started. I was living in Mexico. But I was up in Austin, staying with a friend, and someone said the Sex Pistols were playing at Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio, which was a block from where I grew up. I rode with them, and it was an awful gig. Sid Vicious got hit with a bottle in the second song. He just staggered around and bled for the rest of the night.

But on that same trip, I went by the house of another friend in Austin, and he said, "You gotta hear this." It was My Aim Is True, by Elvis Costello. I went, "OK, now I know why I need an electric guitar." There would have been no Guitar Town without that.

Is Guitar Town a country record or a rock album?
I was making Born in the U.S.A. I had seen Bruce Springsteen on that tour as I was starting to write those songs. Bruce opened with "Born in the U.S.A.," and while I'd been a Springsteen fan, I got it in a way I never had before. It was like, "If I make a record that says something about who I am, I'll be able to live with it, be proud of it." The rest took care of itself.

The way I write songs is true to what I believe is important in country music. I was playing a country joint in Las Vegas when Guitar Town came out, and there was a big dance floor in front of the stage. This guy went dancing by, and he said, "Play something country." I stopped the band in its tracks, and I said, "I have the Number One country album in America. This week, I decide what's fucking country and what's not."

How much did your politics change, or disappear, as you got deeper into drugs?
I became apolitical. The street and jail — everything that exists in this world exists in that world. There's politics there, but you don't have time. When I wrote "Billy Austin" [on 1990's The Hard Way], the death-penalty movement came to me. But my version of activism then was I went to rallies and played the song. Then I got into a limo and fucked off.

In prison, I did my time and tried to stay clean. It was a full-time job to stay out of trouble. All kinds of shit happens in jail. I had a guy who took my fucking radio. That's politics, believe me.

How much has the election and the Iraq was diverted you from your other causes, such as eliminating the death penalty?
Keep in mind, I'm not opposed to the death penalty because I'm trying to save people on death row. I've been in jail — most of the people locked up needed to be there. It's not about that. It's about the damage it does to us. A country that doesn't execute people is less likely to attack Iraq for no reason and is more likely to carry itself in a way that has the respect of the world.

I haven't abandoned that issue. But I don't get involved in individual cases very much. I got too close to too many inmates, and most of them are dead. I watched one of them die. I do my activism in other ways. I don't want anyone to ask me to witness another execution.

Do you still believe in music as an instrument of change, as much as you did that day in front of the Alamo?
It is the only weapon available to me. And I witnessed music helping to stop the Vietnam War. Woodstock [in 1969] was a huge thing: 400,000 people in one place, virtually all of them opposed to that war.

A year later, the film of the festival was playing at drive-ins in Texas. My dad begrudgingly took the family to see it. We were butting heads at that point: He was pissed off that I'd sewn an American flag upside down on the back of my jacket and got thrown out of school for it. But he saw Joan Baez singing "Amazing Grace" in that film, and she blew him away. He looked at me differently after sitting through that movie. That was a pivotal point in our relationship.

Has writing and recording songs like "F the CC" and "The Revolution Starts Now" made you feel better about the future?
Sure. Saying "fuck" makes you feel better [laughs] — especially in a time when it's imperative that everybody say it as loudly and as often as possible.