clip: Steve Earle
A cool cowpoke gets political
Steve Earle, a new disc under his belt, talks about his tumultuous career --
a hair-raising ride that has included many wives, an ugly romance with
heroin, and watching a man die.
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By Mark J. Miller
Aug. 29, 2002 | Not too many record-company execs ask for overtly
political albums from their artists, particularly in a time of
high-intensity American boosterism. But that's exactly the directive that
renegade roots rocker Steve Earle received from Artemis Records owner Danny
Goldberg before Earle started his latest disc, "Jerusalem," due in stores
Of course, when the artist is Earle, it is hardly necessary to ask for
potentially combustible material. Since his debut in 1985 with the rough and
ready, honky-tonkin' "Guitar Town" -- designated by some as the salvation of
country music -- Earle has chosen to go against the flow. Instead of
reveling in the cool cowpoke image that came with the release of "Guitar
Town," Earle moved on to rock 'n' roll, a phase that culminated with the
1988 Top 10 rock-radio hit "Copperhead Road" from the album of the same
name. He kept rocking the country cradle, creating urgent, rootsy, roadhouse
tunes about lonesome losers with beat-up lives, which drew many comparisons
to Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar characters.
But as he pressed into new creative territory, Earle began to tempt the
fates, developing a serious heroin addiction and a habit of marrying and
divorcing women with troubling frequency. By 1990, when he released the
aptly named "The Hard Way," Nashville was ready for him to disappear. And he
did. For four years, he didn't write any songs, instead spending his days
chasing down dope. He was on the last of his five wives by then.
In 1994, Earle was arrested for drug possession and went into rehab. Since
then, he's released six critically acclaimed discs in six years; started his
own record label, producing albums for everyone from Lucinda Williams to Bap
Kennedy; written "Doghouse Roses," a book of short stories; founded the
BroadAxe Theatre, the acting company in Nashville that will premiere Earle's
first play, "Karla," about Karla Faye Tucker, a born-again Christian who was
executed in 1998 in Texas. In his spare time, Earle has devoted time to
working for the elimination of land mines abroad, and the abolition of the
death penalty at home.
His name has become synonymous with the latter cause, particularly since he
befriended Jonathan Nobles, a convict on Death Row in Texas with whom he
became pen pals. Earle witnessed Nobles' 1998 execution and has written a
number of tunes about the death penalty, including "Over Yonder (Jonathan's
Song)" for Nobles and "Ellis Unit One" for the "Dead Man Walking"
"Jerusalem" features a few more prison tunes as well as a rant on the
dilution of baby-boomer values, and a song that's already brought Earle a
barrage of criticism -- "John Walker's Blues." The song's story is told from
the perspective of convicted American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, and
contains such lyrics as "If I die, I'll rise up to the sky/ Just like Jesus"
and "we came to fight the jihad and our hearts were pure and strong."
Earle, relaxing in the Manhattan offices of his record label, took a few
minutes earlier this week to discuss Truman Capote, drug addiction, why
poetry is like bluegrass, Bruce Springsteen, the dogs of Galway, why FarmAid
works, and if there's a cure for being a Texan.
How did you become interested in politics?
I just grew up in a time when songs were pretty political. It was the '60s,
early '70s; the Vietnam War was going on. I was too young to play in places
that served liquor when I first started, so I played in a coffeehouse and
the local underground newspaper was published upstairs. My politics were
really radical when I was younger and then I moderated like everyone else
does when they start having kids.
What's different for me is that I nearly died. That makes you look at things
differently. That's what "Christmas in Washington" [from 1997's "El
Corazón"] was about. It was about politics, but it was a very personal
political song. It was about me waking up one day and realizing that maybe I
was right in the first place, that maybe there isn't any reason for someone
to go hungry in the richest country in the world, that maybe we need to
start thinking about what our grandchildren will do when the United States
isn't the most powerful country in the world.
You know, I still write more songs about girls than anything else. But I
don't have it in me to go out of my way to write songs that aren't about
anything. I wasn't raised to do it like that.
Have you recaptured your youthful intensity?
I think I have. I'm pretty politically active at this point in my life. I
mean, I'm involved in an organization called the Justice Project, which
requires me putting on a suit and going to Capitol Hill to talk to people
about the death penalty.
Is that a satisfying experience?
It's not satisfying. It's frustrating, but it makes me feel like I'm not
doing nothing. And I'm not comfortable with doing nothing.
How surprised were you when your label asked you to make an overtly
When [Grammy-nominated] "Transcendental Blues" came out (in 2000), Danny
Goldberg said to me, "I would never tell you how to make records, but ..."
He was looking for a way for me to distinguish whatever my next record would
be from "Transcendental." This was before Sept. 11. I thought he was crazy.
I wasn't inclined to do that, but I was very, very impressed and felt very
safe and very supported. Then Sept. 11 happened and I found myself writing
that political album.
This is the first time I haven't had an adversarial relationship with a
record company. And I've been OK with that. Artists have always had to
fight. Michelangelo didn't particularly get along with the Vatican. He
needed the money.
Are you surprised about the fuss over "John Walker's Blues"?
I'm only surprised that it started more than a month before the record came
out. Anyone who listens to the song knows that I'm not telling you to send
your kids off to the Taliban. Taking it out of context, listening to
snippets of it and then railing about Jesus and patriotism is just sort of
Didn't you once say you'd leave Tennessee if there was ever an execution
I caught some shit from several people about that because I didn't leave
[after Robert Glen Coe was executed there in 2000 -- the state's first
execution since 1960]. What happened was I met [live-in girlfriend] Sara and
I can't leave.
But we're starting to get somewhere with that movement. There's a moratorium
in Illinois and a moratorium in Maryland as of about several weeks ago.
People are starting to realize that [the death penalty] is expensive and
that it doesn't do what it's advertised to do.
The death penalty will die of natural causes just like it did in the '60s.
If we didn't do shit, the death penalty would go away eventually. But right
now, all the abolition movement is trying to do is hasten that demise so
that fewer people die.
It's not just the people dying, it's also what it does to us every time we
kill someone. It affects all of us. Certainly it affects the people whose
job it is to go get the people out of their cells no matter how hard they
fight, how loud they scream, and kill them. That affects those people for
the rest of their lives. I've witnessed an execution. This is not an
abstract for me. It's a really ugly thing. It scarred me for life. I'm still
recovering from it. I have dreams about it.
Are you glad that you witnessed it?
No. I don't know how I could have avoided it. I don't recommend it to
anyone. I had two revelations. One was that I needed to tell other
abolitionists who are asked if they want to do this to really think about
it, that it's not what they think. It's more damaging than they could
possibly imagine. The other thing that surprised me was the amount of
empathy I had for the people who had to participate in the execution. No
matter what lip service they give or what rhetoric they attach to it --
they're finding now that people who work in death row units where they do
executions, especially Texas where they do a lot of them, that most of them
eventually burn out and change their minds about the death penalty.
How did you start writing letters to death row prisoners?
I wrote [the song] "Billy Austin" [about a death row inmate] and then
inmates and people from the movement started writing me. I've always opposed
the death penalty. I just grew up that way. It's never, ever made sense to
One of the biggest influences on me as a child was that my dad was involved
in a letter-writing campaign. And he probably supported the death penalty or
at least thought it was justified in some instances. But there was a guy in
San Antonio who was charged with killing a kid whose family had a lot of
money. The rich kid was riding around in a car with a gun. This was the
early '60s when everybody wanted to be Sharks and Jets. The other kid got
hold of the gun and killed the rich kid, whose family hired a powerful
lawyer to prosecute the case, and my father didn't think that was fair so he
wrote a letter to the governor. It was the first action I ever witnessed
against the death penalty. My father was an air-traffic controller and kind
of a regular guy.
Then a few years later I saw "In Cold Blood." The way Perry Smith's
execution is portrayed in that film -- I read above my level as a kid so I
immediately went out and got the book -- the indignity and inhumanity of it
was really apparent to me even when I was 10.
The thing that disgusted me is that there's a scene where they're getting
ready to execute Smith and they've got him in a harness. He's worried that
he's going to soil himself; he's heard that happens. So he wants to go to
the bathroom, and they say, "No, we don't have time." Finally the priest
intervenes -- "For God's sake" -- and they hurry and get him out of the
harness and then strap him back up again. It was just obvious to me that it
was hurting everyone. And it was a pretty realistic portrayal from what I
understand from all of my own research. Truman Capote is really an
interesting cat. I mean, it's just a really, really great book. It made a
big impression on me.
You've been working on your own novel, right?
I haven't worked on it in a while because I've been working on this play and
that goes into rehearsals Sept. 1. The novel will be the nonmusical project
for probably the next couple of years. During the tour, I'll work on it, but
probably not every day. But when the tour is over, I'll probably sit down
and finish it.
You recently spent a year writing daily haiku, too, didn't you?
I'm struggling with that right now. I didn't write those to publish 'em. But
Tony Fitzpatrick, the artist who does all my album covers, he and I are
talking about putting together a book of that haiku. There would be some
connecting prose pieces because it's kind of a journal. It's 366 days,
because I fucked up and did it during a leap year, and 366 haiku. They're in
a little notebook and I just wrote the date and where I was so it's kind of
interesting in that respect.
I haven't written any haiku since. I haven't written any poetry since, but
I've been wanting to write some longer poems again. When I started the haiku
thing, all the other poetry went on the back burner, but I'm growing
interested again. Poetry is the hardest thing that there is. It fascinates
me so I want to write more of it.
It's certainly an underappreciated art.
It's like bluegrass. Deciding to be a poet is a hardcore decision. It's
saying, "I'm going to do something that's really hard, that I'll never
master, and that will never make me a fucking dime." Bluegrass and poetry
have a lot in common.
You think you'll make another bluegrass album?
Probably. I'm just not the type of person to make one when everyone else is
making one. I guess I don't look quite as crazy as when I made [1999's] "The
Mountain" [with the Del McCoury Band].
How do you decide which format any story you have will be written in?
It's really taxing sometimes, but you can do it. I probably learned from
Tony Fitzpatrick and Terry Allen more than anyone else that it's really
important to do stuff outside of your core craft. I think it keeps you fresh
in your core craft.
Terry is a songwriter who makes these really wacko records that are always
on small labels. He wrote "New Delhi Freight Train" [for Little Feat] years
ago and his day job is as a sculptor. He works on a fairly large scale with
metal and he also does these wired-for-sound kinetic sculptures. He's the
reason that Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are who they are
because he was their teacher.
I had just finished "Doghouse Roses" and I was working on the play and I
actually had started on the novel and we were doing land-mine dates on the
West Coast and I hadn't seen Terry in a long time. He was there and I told
him about everything I was doing and he said. "Cool. Man, don't you do any
And I don't. I don't have any aptitude for it at all, which is odd because
I'm the only one in my family who doesn't. My father paints beautifully and
my brother did when he was younger. The most I have is bonsai, which is a
visual art that God helps with.
I love Terry's attitude, though. I really kept my head down in songwriting
and songwriting only until this sort of second lease on life that I got.
Originally, writing prose was an exercise because I'm scared of not writing
because I didn't write for four years. It turns out that all I have to do is
not spend my whole day running around trying to find dope and I write just
Writers fear blank paper more than anything else. I've been really blessed
that I've had something to say and that people have been pretty supportive
of me when I step outside of music.
How'd you get into the bonsai?
Probably through haiku. Part of it was this dream that I had before I fell
in love again and moved another girl into my house who started putting stuff
everywhere and decorating everything. I had this dream of this really
uncluttered Japanese environment in my house. That's all gone to hell.
Girls, they decorate.
My girlfriend says bonsai is the only time I shut up, but she's never been
fishing with me. I do shut up when I'm fishing, too. You get up in the
morning and that's generally when I'm messing with the trees. And sometimes
the thing to do is nothing.
I've got maybe too many trees. I just lost two because I was in Europe and
my son managed to kill two and Sara has a black thumb, too, so every once in
a while when I'm on the road I'll lose one. I probably have nine trees now.
I've had 16 or 17.
It makes you look at trees differently. When I see a full-size tree now, I
look at it differently. I'm looking at why the trunk does what it does and
speculating on what makes it do that. Bonsai is an illusion. You're seeing
this miniaturized version and sometimes it's not what it seems. Sometimes
it'll look great, like a deciduous tree will look great in the summer and
springtime but when the leaves fall you can see that the limbs have been
amputated and it's an illusion. It's kind of a cool thing.
Why did rehab work in '94?
I was ready. I was sick of it. I knew about the program and I just didn't
know how to stop. My grandmother and grandfather on my mother's side were
both in the program. You can't say A.A. or N.A., traditionally. I can say
12-step program and it's important that I say that because what happened to
me was so public.
I still do exactly what I did almost eight years ago. I go to meetings. I
call my sponsor. When I'm home, I go five or six times a week. I try to go
every day. An hour a day, the program is my spiritual system. It's the only
one I have still. It's absolutely the centerpiece of my life.
That's interesting. From your work with haiku and bonsai, it sounds like you
have an Eastern sensibility trickling in.
I'd be a really bad Buddhist. I really hate to kill things now but I don't
mind that other people kill them so I can eat them. I think it would be
really hard on me to get that introspective. My spirituality boils down to
that there is a God, and it ain't me. That's what's important for me to
Our attempts to be God are where we fuck up. When we start trying to control
shit or control the illusion that we control things, it's bad. The vast
majority of times I still want to control everything and I wear myself out
and then I have these moments where I'm able to literally let it go and
those are the best times.
It happens automatically for me in a ballpark. It sounds weird but ballparks
are the most tranquil structures human beings have ever built. For me, more
than any church, more than anything else.
I'm a huge Yankees fan. I was 6 years old in 1961 and that's what you got on
TV in Texas was the Yankees. But I'll go to any ballpark, it doesn't matter.
We have a triple-A team in Nashville and I go a lot. I can walk in and it
happens almost immediately. As soon as I get to the top of the steps and see
the green, I start feeling better. The shape of the fields, the colors,
everything about 'em, I love 'em.
Ever get sick of the Springsteen comparisons?
No, it's flattering. Springsteen came along at a time that was really
difficult for singer/songwriters, but he was just so good that he broke
through. I think he's the best out there. His body of work speaks for
itself. And the way "Guitar Town" was written to be a record, with a
beginning track and an end track, was the direct result of me seeing the
"Born in the U.S.A." tour and listening to that album a lot. It's seen as
the record where he became an icon in the commercial world, but it's his
most political record. It was very misinterpreted at the time. I still think
it's his best.
Who gave you your first guitar when you were 11?
My uncle, who is five years older than me. He was living with us at the
time. I started to learn to play upside down because he's left-handed. Then
he got a new guitar and he gave me his old one.
And then you split when you were 16?
I started to run away from home when I was 14. I feel bad because my parents
were really great parents and they never did anything to me to make me want
to run away.
By the time I was 16, the FAA was starting to computerize air-traffic
control and they decided to retrain my dad for data systems so he had to go
back to Oklahoma City to go to the academy. I had dropped out of school by
that time and had a gig at night and a job building houses during the day. I
didn't want to go to Oklahoma and they knew they couldn't make me go
anywhere so they helped me find an apartment and we went and celebrated my
birthday three months early because we always went to a Mexican restaurant
for my birthdays and off they went.
My relationship with my parents improved immediately after I moved out of
the house. I was hard to be around. My family is really close and the only
time I haven't gotten along with my parents is between 14 and 16 and I think
everyone can say that. And I was 14 in 1969, right at the peak of when
everyone was not getting along with their parents.
How did you discover your love of Ireland?
Irish and Scottish music is such a huge part of country music so it was sort
of natural. And Ireland is a place where I've done really well, so we've
played there a lot, so that got me there.
I'd been hearing about Galway since the '80s and finally got there in the
'90s and fell in love with every dog that had a bandanna around its neck and
a Frisbee in its mouth. It's my kind of town. It's a university town and a
tourist town. Artists have been living in the margins of places like that
You're there a lot?
I go when I can and I try to stay three or four months at a time. I go when
I'm finishing a project. I wrote most of "El Corazón" there, half of the
book there, several of the songs that ended up on "Transcendental" were
written there. If I hadn't fallen in love with a girl who has two small kids
whose father lives in Tennessee, I'd probably be living there now.
You grew up outside San Antonio, but you were born in Virginia. Is it true
that your grandfather sent soil from Texas to where you were born in
Virginia so the first soil your feet would touch would be Texas soil?
It's true. My father sent dirt when my two boys were born. My granddad sent
his youngest son -- he was 15 and had never been out of Jacksonville, Texas.
He put the poor kid on a train to Virginia with a garbage can full of dirt.
His instruction was that the dirt be under the fucking table when I was
born. It took a great big arm and nose and mustache to keep that from
happening. And they took a picture of that and I have pictures of it when my
boys were born and my dad sent dirt.
It's funny about Texas. I'll always be a Texan because there's no cure for
it. Probably if there was, I'd take it. There are a lot of things about
Texas that really bother me and more each time I go back.
The death penalty is the big one, but it's not just that. I think a good way
of looking at it is that Texas has changed. As conservative as Texas is on
some things, there was this odd time in the '70s when Willie Nelson moved
back to Texas from Nashville and I stopped getting my ass kicked.
For a while I got my ass kicked because I wore cowboy boots and I had long
hair. All of a sudden, Willie comes back and at first there was trouble
because Willie would have a concert and hippies would show up. I once saw a
bunch of guys dancing on the dance floor and a bunch of kids sitting there
and one guy dancing was kicking at people and Willie stopped the show and
said, "There's room for some to sit and some to dance." He just didn't put
up with it.
Willie's genuinely serene. FarmAid works because Willie doesn't want to hear
about it not working. Texas got to be a really, really cool place. But it
only went so deep. And it went away again quickly.
I'll always be a Texan and I'll always be an American. I may not always live
in the U.S., but I'll always be an American. The government can't decide
whether I'm an American or not.
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About the writer
Mark Miller is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has written for ESPN magazine,
MTV.com and the Washington Post.
---Dave Purcell, newport@...
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