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 this month.
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” soundtrack.
“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 political record?
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 silly.
Didn’t you once say you’d leave Tennessee if there was ever an execution there?
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 me.
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 visual art?”
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 fine.
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 remember.
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 forever.
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.