Singer-songwriter Steve Earle has been embattled since his career began. He fled Texas in the early '70s when the local country fans weren't interested in his teenage hippie idealism, and he came up through the Nashville ranks a few years later, as the industry was gravitating away from longhaired rebels and toward pop crossovers. After making significant mainstream inroads in the '80s with his albums Guitar Town, Exit 0, and Copperhead Road (all of which appealed to the then-burgeoning "cowpunk" movement more than to traditional country radio), Earle hit a rough patch at the start of the '90s, as his airplay diminished and his dependence on heroin increased. A few scuffles with the law culminated in a year of jail time.
Since getting out of prison and cleaning up in 1994, Earle has begun to realize his early promise, in part by cultivating the same audience that enjoys Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and Bruce Springsteen: roots-rock fans who like character-driven story-songs from committed artists. And Earle has salvaged some of his youthful rebellion, too, by becoming deeply involved with organizations that advocate abolishing the death penalty. His activism made him a controversial figure in 2002, when his song "John Walker's Blues" (a sympathic song from the point of view of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh) led to Earle's vilification on radio talk shows across the nation. With a new set of even angrier songs (titled The Revolution Starts Now) in stores Aug. 24, Earle spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his history of taking stands.
The Onion: You've made several different kinds of records in your career, but now you've followed one collection of directly political songs with another collection of directly political songs. Why?
Steve Earle: I'm not in love at the moment, and the world is blowing up around me. And these records are only a year and a half apart. The difference between the two is that Jerusalem was really about my discovery of how ignorant we are of Islam, and how dangerous I think that is right now, while this new record is about the war. I'd love to do a whole record of chick songs, but the world's going to have to settle down a little first.
O: Both albums have a lot of straight polemics, but both also contain a lot of character studies.
SE: That's usually the most effective way to do it. I mean, it's obvious I have an agenda, but take "John Walker's Blues" [from Jerusalem]. I'm opposed to harming anyone for any reason, and I don't sympathize with John Walker Lindh in that respect. My real problem is with scapegoating. The way to deal with how I felt was to try to get inside that character and speculate on what would bring somebody to where he ended up.
O: Were you surprised by the outcry over that song?
SE: Nah. It came from exactly the people I expected it to come from, which was all the people I was actively trying to piss off. I considered that to be a home run. The only review I've ever framed in my life was the one-star review from the New York Post for that record.
O: In the documentary Just An American Boy, one cable-news pundit called it the worst song ever written.
SE: You know, in this particular age of songwriting, that's nothing to worry about. [Laughs.]
O: When people like yourself or Michael Moore raise questions about the war on terror, a common criticism is that you're putting American troops in harm's way. What do you say to that?
SE: That's retarded. What puts our troops in harm's way is sending them to countries to fight wars over money. I support our troops 100 percent. I advocate bringing them home. Today.
O: What about the criticism that you're more sympathetic to killers than to victims?
SE: Well, I'm not. Just look at my record as an activist. My main area is the death penalty, but I've done most of my work with Murder Victims' Families For Reconciliation and Journey Of Hope… From Violence To Healing. The idea that murder victims' families are best served by continuing the cycle of violence is something that I consider to be not only a lie, but criminally negligent. You lie to victims' families when you tell them they're going to receive closure if they participate in the process and witness the execution of a human being. I've witnessed the execution of a human being. This is not an abstract for me. I promise you, it isn't going to heal anybody. I'll never recover from it. It's incredibly irresponsible to allow victims' family members to witness executions.
O: Why do you think people feel a need for that kind of closure?
SE: We're Americans. It's part of our culture. I don't consider us to be evil, I just don't think we know any better. We're a really young culture. We're hillbillies, and the rest of the world sees us that way. I travel all over the world, and probably the only worse rednecks than us are the Australians. And they're an even younger country. [Laughs.]
O: How much impact did your time in jail have on your worldview?
SE: Well, it has an impact on you. I was doing the death-penalty thing before I went to jail, but I do it much better now, and I'm much more involved, because I'm clean. I don't have to go out and find $500 worth of dope every day before I can do something constructive. And, having been in jail, I can talk about that from a little different perspective. I know the whole idea of a country-club prison is a myth. Any place that you walk into that you can't open the door yourself and walk out of is a bad fucking place to be. I know for a fact that criminals are not being coddled anywhere in this motherfucking country. And I know that probably, we'd be better off if we tried to rehabilitate people.
O: Besides performing in prison as a condition of your probation, have you been back for any other reasons?
SE: I do go to jails and prisons from time to time to do stuff around 12-step programs, to take in a meeting. That's all I can really say about that.
O: Did you come from a left-leaning family?
SE: My parents were kind of yellow-dog Democrats, at a time when everybody was in Texas. My dad lives here in Tennessee now, and is becoming downright radical in his old age. So's my uncle, which is funny, because he still lives in Jacksonville, Texas, and he embarrasses the fuck out of some of his friends. He's just completely and totally opposed to the war. He's an interesting guy. He ran a basket factory, and he was a farmer, and then he ended up, because his wife was a teacher, driving a school bus in his spare time. Then he ended up substitute teaching for a lot of years because there was a shortage of teachers, and he was teaching special-ed kids and kids with disciplinary problems. They thought they were just warehousing them with him, but he actually taught them. He's a trip. He's one of my heroes.
And my parents were an influence on me. The first activism against the death penalty I ever saw was my dad writing a letter to the governor of Texas, because he felt like one particular inmate was being discriminated against, because the family of the victim had been allowed to hire a special prosecutor. He'd basically never thought about the death penalty until he got a glimpse of how unevenly it's applied. So I've learned from them, and I think I've probably been an influence on them.
You know, I'm not comfortable with people whose politics are static in a democracy. I opposed gun control at one time, and I don't now. I was an NRA member just like Michael Moore, and for the same reason: I was a Boy Scout. I had a lot of guns, and I thought it was a fundamental constitutional right. But the place has become so fucking dangerous that it's not real smart to support that anymore. [Laughs.] I came in contact with guns almost every day as a heroin addict, but what finally changed my mind was when my 14-year-old son hid a gun of mine in his room and wouldn't admit that he had it. There hasn't been a gun in my house since. So people who are completely closed-minded and not willing to have a dialogue and even consider letting go of some of their ideas about how society works make me fucking nervous.
O: When pundits break down the U.S. into "red states" and "blue states," they say that the states with the most country music fans are the most conservative, politically. Do you think that's true?
SE: Yeah, but I haven't been played on a country radio station in, God, 15 years. "Guitar Town" still gets played as an oldie, or it did until Clear Channel bought all the country radio stations. I'd like to think that my audience is working-class people, and there are maybe some people like that who relate to me, but the truth of the matter is that I sell more records in New York City and Chicago than I do anyplace else. My audience is, you know, pinkos in big cities. It has been for a while.
O: Your musical genre seems to have a built-in audience, but not a huge one.
SE: No. I sell 100,000 records. I mean, I've sold more than that, but I know 100,000 people are going to buy every record I put out. And I can tell you the other artists that they buy, too. They're a pretty smart audience, and they're not an elitist audience. They're not people with a ton of money. They're people that read a lot, and they're potentially a political force. My audience doesn't agree with me on everything, but I love my audience, because they're totally okay with us having a dialogue.
O: Did the sales on Jerusalem spike at all, given the controversy?
SE: I don't think so. Actually, I think Transcendental Blues sold a little more than Jerusalem did. But that was more of a marketing thing. Transcendental was my first record for Artemis, so [Artemis CEO] Danny Goldberg did a lot of marketing things that probably sold some extra records. And we decided that we didn't make any new permanent audience with Transcendental, so we didn't do those things when Jerusalem came out, and Jerusalem fell right back into that 100,000-record pocket. You know, I made a bluegrass record [The Mountain] that Warner Bros. didn't want to put out, and when I left Warner over that, they thought I was going to sell less records than I normally sell, but it sold 100,000 records, just like the record before it did.
Look, I'd love to sell more records. But you can make an embarrassing amount of money—for a borderline Marxist—selling 100,000 records a year, if you're willing to go out and work. I make what I consider to be an obscene amount of money. I do have to work for it, but I'm totally okay with that. I think everyone's going to have to do it. I think the music business is changing. Artists that don't want to tour and just want to collect royalty checks and stay home are not going to be able to do that anymore. And the more I think about it, the more I think that's the way it should be. I feel like I owe my audience something. They feed my kids. And I really like my job, a lot. Thank God, because the reality of the business is that people have to tour now. I always have, so it's not like something I have to get comfortable with. But that's the way the business is going. There's no way that file-sharing and downloading aren't going to affect the bottom line. But I really believe that if I make records that are indispensable to my audience, they'll go out and spend money to buy them, even if they've already downloaded them. If they can afford it. If they can't, I'd rather they be able to download it than not get it at all.
O: Did getting away from major labels allow you to find the sound you'd been looking for, since you no longer had to conform to a commercial standard?
SE: Absolutely. I didn't realize it, because I sort of dug going to war with labels. For years I just thought it was part of the creative process. Now I don't have to do that, because I record for Danny Goldberg. Danny and I have really fundamentally different orientations to our activism. Danny's a civil libertarian, and I believe everything Karl Marx said about economics. But we think the same things are important. We think free speech is important. We think government should do something for its citizens, and that nobody should go hungry in the richest country in the world. There's more than enough here to take care of everybody. Any reason someone offers you for why people can't get a job or can't get enough to eat or can't get medical attention is bullshit. There's no other explanation than greed. I really, truly believe that. I've believed that all my life.
Danny and I are both people who made a lot more money than we had any business making. Danny made a lot more money than I did, but you know what? There's no difference between the way Danny lives and the way I live, when it gets right down to it. You can only spend so much fucking money. That's why we do things the way that we do. I don't understand The Beach Boys' theory of spiritual evolution. I don't know how you get from transcendental meditation to being a Republican. I never made over $7,000 a year in my life until I was in my early 30s, and then suddenly I made, like, $300,000 in one year. Like, boom. I went from $7,000 one year to $85,000 the next year to $350,000 the next year. And I've never made less than $350,000 in a year since then, except for the year that I was on the street, and I still had royalty income that was an embarrassing amount of money. But you don't have to lose sight of your values.
O: You came to Nashville at the height of the "outlaw country" movement. What was the city like then for a young songwriter?
SE: I was 19, and I was an apprentice in that movement. I played bass for Guy Clark and I hung out at Jack Clement's studio and Tompall Glaser's studio. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were suddenly selling a lot of records, and it was a pretty great time to be here, man. It was like, on any night, you could go into a hotel room or somebody's apartment in this town, and everybody was there. Me and David Olney and a few other people who were at street-level. Neil Young, if he was coming through town. Guy and Townes Van Zandt, when he was here, and Dick Feller and Rodney Crowell, before he moved to the West Coast. And the guitar was going around the room. This was a fucking university for songwriters. It was incredibly democratic, and it was a great place to learn. It doesn't happen anymore. Now, kids are herded into offices to write with other people, and to write a certain thing.
O: What was behind the shift? By the time you got signed in the early '80s, you were making records that your labels wouldn't release.
SE: In those days, Tony Brown had signed me and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett in a six-month period, because Tony really believed that singer-songwriters were going to be the next wave in country music. Which at the time was incredibly naïve, because publishers controlled the town. This was the last Tin Pan Alley. The publishers, even the good ones, had a stake in artists not writing their own songs. Singer-songwriters got deals, but it was basically to placate them. No real attempt was made at breaking a singer-songwriter. Jimmy Bowen looked me in the eye after I turned in Guitar Town and said, "You'll have to listen to outside material for your next record, because you'll be touring and you won't have time to write." And I took that as a double-dog-dare. I've only recorded covers on a regular studio record one time, and that was right after I got out of jail and I wanted to make a record really fast. So it hasn't always been the most encouraging creative environment, but then again, the mainstream music business in New York and L.A. aren't, either.
The real problem with Nashville doesn't have to do with the music business, but living in a place with this many fucking Baptists. People come here from New York and L.A. expecting it to be a safer place to raise their kids, I guess because they're under the impression that it's easier to protect their kids from Baptists than gang members. That's not necessarily true.
O: Are there any plans to compile all the unreleased material from before Guitar Town?
SE: I don't know. Virtually everything I've recorded is out there, in one form or another. Even the demos. Almost anything you could fucking imagine. There's probably bootlegs of you. The technology is so good and so democratic. Bruce Springsteen sat in with me one night in Sea Bright, New Jersey, and somebody sent me a bootleg a week later. I had been thinking, "I wonder if anyone recorded that," which was like the stupidest, most naïve question in the world. [Laughs.] It's all being recorded, some by people perfectly innocently, and some by people not so fucking innocent, you know?
O: Your career has kind of come full circle. You were singing antiwar songs as a teenager, during the Vietnam War, and now you're singing antiwar songs again.
SE: Politics has always been in my music. Anybody who doesn't understand how political "Copperhead Road" is isn't listening very well. I'm more politically active right now than I've been since the Vietnam War, because I feel like I have to be. I believe we're good people who created this really amazing fucking document called the Constitution. I think it's what we'll be remembered for. Maybe rock 'n' roll. Maybe jazz. I'm one of those people who like to think maybe baseball. But believe me, we're not going to last forever. Every country that's ever been the most powerful country in the world ceases to be the most powerful country in the world at some point. Britain had to learn to carry itself differently after it wasn't the most powerful country in the world anymore, and I think they did a pretty fucking good job of it. Or you can be like the Soviet Union, start out with ideals, and end up ceasing to exist. The way we're carrying ourselves right now, while we're the most powerful country in the world, is going to determine whether we even exist in another hundred years, and how we're treated if we do. It makes me concerned for my grandchildren and their children.