Just your average extraordinary joe, Virginia-born Texan Steve Earle has lived through enough trials and tribulations to make a black cat blanch.
Rocking the country music world on its heels, Earle’s first full-length album, 1986’s Guitar Town, swaggered into the No. 1 spot on the country charts like it owned Nashville, while also breaking into the top 100 on the pop charts. Earle furthered his reputation as a consistently riveting songwriter through Exit 0 and 1988’s Copperhead Road, rocketing Earle’s career toward the intoxicating heights of country and rock superstardom. Restless to the core, Earle himself rocketed toward oblivion with a drug habit that would not leave him alone, and vice versa. Taking a four year drug-induced detour in the early ’90s that ended up with a few months in prison, Earle cleaned up and began following a 12-step program.
Steve came storming back like a revived prize-fighter, integrity intact and thriving on album after album of critically acclaimed and commercially successful recordings.
The music goes the distance, from the acoustic-flavored story songs of Train a Comin’, to straight-up bluegrass with Del McCoury in The Mountain, to more customary fare, including some gravel grinding rock that harks back to Copperhead Road.
With his latest release, the Grammy-nominated Jerusalem, Earle has drawn fire for “John Walker’s Blues,” a song that dares to humanize American Taliban member John Walker Lindh, and continues the controversy with other tracks as well. Intermingled are some stellar cuts that are just simply damn good, controversy or no. Embodying his music, Steve Earle is a beguiling mix of uncompromising honesty, sweet empathy and knowing humor. During a break in his ongoing tour in support of Jerusalem, Steve offered these insights during a phone conversation:
The Independent: Bill Press [of MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press] called you an “idiot” and said you were “out there on the fringe,” and Pat Buchanan chimed in and opined that you were “anti-American.” Do you really feel that you’re that far removed from the opinions of a lot of Americans?
Steve Earle: No … the people who say that sort of stuff about me, it’s like that kind of talk radio and that kind of television, and the New York Post, equating that with a serious political discussion or a serious discussion of any kind is like thinking that pro wrestling’s real.
(Busts out laughing) And it’s not. It’s entertainment and it works because it gets people’s blood up.
People ask why there isn’t a liberal talk show, a big liberal talk show star. There’s not one because it would be boring, it would make too much sense.
Has your audience changed this tour, say, going from people that know you and just want to hear the new tunes played live, to more like “hmm, who is this guy that’s created such a fuss, what’s he about, let’s go hear him”?
So far I haven’t seen that, but it’s really early in the tour, so it’s hard to tell. We’ve just done one run up the East Coast. And originally we were gonna play Raleigh on the first run, but then Springsteen put up a show someplace in North Carolina on the same night–and we didn’t wanna hurt his ticket sales. (Laughs).
… So all I’ve done is just run up the East Coast for a couple of weeks before Christmas. And then we did these shows with Pearl Jam in Seattle, the four nights of benefits that they did, second week in December. And so far I haven’t seen, I haven’t really gotten a feel for the audience, that there’s anyone new, or old. Nobody’s thrown anything at me, I haven’t gotten picketed. And we’re selling tickets, we’re selling records, so … so far so good.
Back on the Train-A-Comin’ album, the last thing you wrote in the liner notes was “God, I hate MTV.” Do you still feel that way?
Well, it sorta–I like The Osbornes (laughs).
At that point MTV still played some music, and it really wasn’t so much about hating MTV as it was their concept of what’s acoustic and what’s not, and how powerful MTV was that it sorta defined, you know, bands would go up and sit down and all of a sudden they’d be labeled acoustic.
On the lyrics to “Ashes to Ashes,” who are those “giants that walked this land” before God wiped the slate clean’?
Dinosaurs. And there’s always a giant.
I guess the USA in some respects is a dinosaur; it’s definitely huge.
One way or the other, the idea is we’re not gonna be the most powerful country in the world forever. My advice is teach your children to speak Spanish or Mandarin. Those are the two most widely spoken languages in the world. And that many people are going to have their day. It’s just a matter of time. So we’ll back ourselves into a corner eventually. And you know, why do we insist on carrying ourselves as if we’re going to be the most powerful country in the world forever, when history teaches us that isn’t true? And you don’t have to be a dick just because you’re the biggest guy around. So most people who have never been the biggest guy around have behaved that way.
But at some point it changes.
In regard to “Conspiracy Theory” off the new album [Jerusalem], is there anything that’s happened to you personally along the lines of what you refer to in the lyrics of that song?
What it really is about is, when I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who thought that John Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald by himself. It was assumed that something fishy happened there. Whatever happened, it didn’t have a fucking thing to do with what the Warren Commission said happened. I believe personally that it’s a lot closer to what Oliver Stone said happened. And always have. But as we’ve gotten more complacent and gotten more comfortable, we revised our own history and accepted the Warren Commission. And I think that’s dangerous.
The term “conspiracy theory” didn’t even exist when I was growing up. It was a derogatory term that was arrived at to make people that don’t accept everything the government says at face value look like nuts.
You’ve already developed a really expansive pallete to paint your songs with, both in terms of instrumentation and lyrics. But the first three songs on Jerusalem seem really different to me. You’ve got the apocalyptic vocal effects and drum loop on “Ashes to Ashes” and the almost surreal, layered vocals on “Conspiracy Theory.” It sounds like you opened up a brand new musical window. How do you feel about that?
“Conspiracy Theory” is really different for me. “Ashes to Ashes,” except for the altered pitch on that vocal, for the most part that track is pretty much straight ahead, two guitars, bass and drums. I had a new sampler, I bought this Boss 505, and it’s real simple, and I can understand it, and it was just sort of fun.
… When I wrote “Ashes To Ashes” I started playing with that, there’s also a backwards guitar on it and a backwards snare drum that I sampled off the track, I just turned the tape around, sampled ’em and then flew it back in.
But “Conspiracy Theory” was really unusual for me in that it was totally groove driven.
… I didn’t write the chorus until the morning we recorded it. It was just the verses, and it didn’t really have a chorus, and the chorus was the real revelation. It was Memorial Day, we were planning on getting together and having a picnic anyway. … I wrote the chorus that morning and decided it would be cool to have another voice other than my own and Siobhan [Maher-Kennedy, engineer Ray Kennedy’s wife] was there, and she’s really great at layering stuff like that and making it; she can do anything.
So we did it all in one day. We got all the basic tracks down, I played everything except the trash cans my brother played, and then put Siobhan’s vocals on it and we mixed it that night. It was finished. We started at about 11 o’clock in the morning and finished it at midnight that night.
Do you feel like that’s a direction that you’re going to want to explore more?
It’ll depend on the songs. I didn’t plan on doing it then. I just reached a point where I felt a need to make a recording by myself. The deal is I talk about doing it a lot, but most of the time I like to play with a rock band so much, that I usually lean toward that.
You’ve made a remarkable career and life drawn from disparate cultural elements. You’re riding the fine line between country and rock; you’re deeply religious but not a Christian, which might be kinda rare in this country. How did you evolve into such a hybrid?
I don’t know, I just grew up when I grew up, which was during the Vietnam War, the ’60s and ’70s. I’m an artist and I was pretty young, and you know … clean livin’ and a bohemian lifestyle, I guess.