The Salon Interview: Steve Earle

The radical country rocker and composer of "John Walker's Blues" blasts the war on Iraq, denounces the death penalty and explains why ex-druggies believe in God.


Andrew O'Hehir
November 14, 2002 2:00AM (UTC)

From a distance, it seemed unlikely: Steve Earle, the radical country-rock singer-songwriter of "John Walker's Blues" fame, had written a play about executed Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker -- and was producing it in Nashville, of all places. But when I got here, to the two-block stretch of 21st Avenue South at the heart of the Music City's Hillsboro Village neighborhood, it stopped seeming weird at all.

Hillsboro Village is where Nashville gets its modest but concentrated dose of upper-middle urban bohemia, a culture that has long since spread beyond the coasts into the American heartland. I've encountered it, to greater or lesser degrees, in such places as Reno, Nev., Utica, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky. All it requires to take root is a thousand or so undergraduates, a few dozen Harper's subscribers and a couple of espresso machines. No doubt it exists wherever you live too.

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In Hillsboro Village you'll find two coffee shops (neither one a Starbucks), a used-book store, a kitsch-antique emporium, a used-clothing boutique, a sushi bar, a brewpub and a venerable breakfast eatery (the Pancake Pantry, legendarily patronized by Garth Brooks). Dyed hair and black leather are routine. Nobody assumes that two men dining together in intimate conversation must be brothers.

Talking to a friendly couple in the lobby of the Belcourt Theatre, I tell them I've come here from New York to see Earle's play "Karla." "You know what?" the guy quips. (He's wearing a black leather jacket.) "There's people in this neighborhood who are under the impression this is New York."

When I repeat this joke to Earle a bit later, he laughs like he doesn't think it's very funny. "I have all these friends that have moved here from New York and L.A. when they had kids," he says, "under the mistaken impression that it's easier to protect your kids from Baptists than from gangs."

No, although Nashville is a lot hipper than I expected, it isn't really much like New York at all (and I mean that in the best possible way). "Karla" played for two weekends earlier this fall in the Belcourt, a semi-renovated 1920s movie palace that briefly housed the Grand Ole Opry during the Depression. Like Earle himself, the play and the scene around it are an odd combination of elements that somehow come together to form a plausible whole: political activism, heavy-duty religious faith, the eccentricities of regional theater, and a desire to challenge taboos and smash orthodoxies.

You might wonder whether Earle, who was already ambushed by the right-wing press this year for writing a song in the persona of American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, is inviting further trouble by producing a sympathetic play about a junkie prostitute who helped chop up two people with a pickax. Nashville's a fairly cosmopolitan town these days, but it's also in the middle of the Bible Belt; will the public be outraged by a drama in which a character, naked from the waist up and covered in blood, cries out, "Fuck you, Jesus!" before apparently ascending to heaven?

The answer, evidently, is no. "Karla" got glowing reviews from the city's daily and weekly papers, and both performances I attended were packed. Furthermore, it's a serious and ambitious work of theater, if also unevenly paced and awkwardly structured. Earle is a longtime activist against the death penalty -- he says he has befriended 11 death-row inmates who have since been executed -- and the play begins with the 1998 execution of Tucker, who became a kind of poster child for both death-penalty opponents and fundamentalist Christians after her jailhouse conversion.

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There are no overt politics in the play, no George W. Bush mocking Tucker while signing her execution order, no didactic lectures on the immorality of the death penalty. Instead, "Karla" (as directed by Darrell Larson, a theater pro who works in both Los Angeles and New York) is a sort of Jean-Paul Sartre "Twilight Zone" episode, where Tucker -- who's surprised not to find Jesus waiting for her with open arms in a field of white light -- must confront a group of other restless spirits waiting for her in some anteroom to the next world. There's her flamboyant mother, a prostitute who died before Tucker's crime; the biker boyfriend with whom she committed the murders (film and TV actor W. Earl Brown, in the play's standout performance); and, most importantly, the two people she hacked up with that pickax at the end of a psychosis-inducing 24-hour methamphetamine marathon.

Sara Sharpe (who is also Earle's girlfriend and the artistic director of his company, BroadAxe Theatre) gives a strong performance in the title role, but I don't think Earle's text, as gripping, adventurous and often funny as it is, finally succeeds in reconciling the reborn Karla with the original version. How did the hard-as-nails tomboy junkie who could kill two people and brag about it -- telling friends that striking the fatal pickax blows made her come -- become the angelic girly-girl who went to her death with a smile and a prayer on her lips?

Tucker's own answer, of course, was that she had been saved by Jesus Christ and was forgiven, and for Earle, who describes himself as a man of faith but not a Christian, "Karla" may be more a public grappling with the religious themes that keep surfacing in his work than a death-penalty drama. It is also, undeniably, a harrowing story of drug culture, something with which Earle has considerable experience.

Today, Earle is a thick-set, middle-aged man with glasses, who looks more like a creative writing professor at nearby Vanderbilt University than a rebellious rocker who once described himself as "slightly to the left of Chairman Mao." He bears only a slight resemblance to the skinny longhair from South Texas who broke into the country-rock scene with a bang in 1986 with the album "Guitar Town."

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Earle had a major hit two years later with the Vietnam-cum-marijuana anthem "Copperhead Road" and the album of the same name, but even then was sinking into the pattern of cocaine and heroin abuse that would cause him to disappear from the music scene in the early '90s. By 1994, when he was arrested and served a brief prison sentence, Earle was by his own admission spending up to $500 a day on crack cocaine.

Earle says he's been clean since joining a 12-step recovery program eight years ago (to maintain "anonymity," he's not supposed to say what specific meetings he attends), and he bounced back musically with the largely acoustic "Train a Comin'" in 1995 and "I Feel Alright" in 1996, two of his best albums. With the fine "Transcendental Blues" in 2000, Earle seemed to have solidified his position as a revered survivor of the hard life, as well as an alt-country pioneer who has inspired much of today's thriving Americana music scene. Then came the album "Jerusalem," and of course the song "John Walker's Blues."

Encouraged by Danny Goldberg, the head of Artemis Records (which distributes Earle's E-Squared label) to write an overtly political album in the wake of Sept. 11, Earle delivered what may be his masterwork to date. A swooping, soaring chronicle of paranoia and despair, "Jerusalem" borrows sounds and themes from all over the musical map, in Earle's inimitable manner.

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On the sardonic "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," you'll hear the guitar riff from "Satisfaction" (and maybe "Jumping Jack Flash" too). The bass line on "Conspiracy Theory" sounds a lot like Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," while the one on "I Remember You" (a lovely duet with Emmylou Harris) strongly suggests "Every Breath You Take." There are electronic effects and traces of hip-hop amid the thundering Old Testament apocalypse of "Ashes to Ashes," the album opener. "The Kind" is a simple, straightforward country ballad, while "Go Amanda" (written with Sheryl Crow) is Skynyrd-style boogie and "What's a Simple Man to Do?" pays tribute to the "narcocorrido" tradition of Mexican norteño pop.

More people have paid attention to the lyrical content of the album than to its music, of course. Even beyond the New York Post and Fox News reporters and right-wing shock jocks who have called Earle a traitor, some people I can respect, like Salon columnist Greil Marcus, have dismissed the wide-ranging, bitter skepticism of "Jerusalem" as cheap left-wing nihilism.

My own position is that there's nothing cheap or fake about nihilism or cynicism at this moment in world history. But I would add that the plaintive, haunting "John Walker's Blues" is not the album's most interesting or most important song. That honor, as Robert Christgau suggests in his perceptive and generally sympathetic discussion of the album in the Village Voice, belongs to the extraordinary title track. It's an unforgettable hymn-like song in which Earle dares to imagine, of all things, lasting peace between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. As befits him, it's an image both secular and spiritual, political and religious, of this world and some other, now-unimaginable one: "I believe that one fine day/ All the children of Abraham/ Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem."

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Earle is currently touring the United States in support of "Jerusalem," hopes to produce "Karla" in Los Angeles or New York next year, and is writing a novel. (His short-story collection, "Doghouse Roses," was published last year.) Between the Saturday matinee and Saturday evening performances of "Karla," he and I crossed 21st Avenue to sit on the back porch of one of those non-Starbucks cafés in near-freezing weather, while Earle smoked most of a pack of American Spirits, chatted with numerous passers-by, dogs and children and talked freely about Nashville, God, death and America.

You do seem at home in Nashville, even though in some ways your politics don't really mesh with this part of the country that much.

You know, if you want an idea of what's going on in the United States of America, this is a much better place to figure it out than New York or L.A. I mean, I wish I lived in New York sometimes, or even L.A. It's tough to find a place to send your kids to school here, if you're me. I mean, if you think the way that I think. My youngest is 15, but Sara [Sharpe, Earle's live-in girlfriend, the lead in "Karla" and the artistic director of the BroadAxe Theatre] has a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old, and we're going through hell with all that. Public schools here suck, for the most part, and private schools are for the most part religious. Really the best thing you can do is Catholic school.

Being a playwright is brand new for you. Have you always been interested in theater?

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The drama teacher that I had in high school, back in Texas, was the only teacher who didn't kick me out of his class. He turned me on to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." I had picked up Dylan with "Bringing It All Back Home," and he turned me on to the first couple of albums, which I hadn't heard.

My grandmother was the wardrobe mistress in a small college theater department, at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas. So I grew up with her costuming shows, I always dug it. Then I got into theater as literature in a really big way. I didn't finish high school and sort of had to educate myself. I knew about Shakespeare from taking drama and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who encouraged me to read the sonnets. I had this real sense of how good he was on a literary level. I went through a pretty intense Tennessee Williams thing, a really intense Eugene O'Neill thing, just reading plays.

Once I started writing prose, then the next thing was I started writing poetry. I've published very little poetry, but I wrote haiku for a year -- one every day for a year. Which was cool, but I haven't written any poetry since, because I've been doing this.

Becoming interested in poetics got me interested in theater. Theater is supposed to be poetry, you know, before it's anything else. It just doesn't fly if it isn't musical. I mean, theater is a visual medium but it's a different kind of visual medium from film. It's not an everything's-possible visual medium that doesn't require you to use your imagination at all, you know? It's a unique environment, when you walk into a space where somebody's put a show up. It's only going to last for as long as it lasts and you have to be there. Live theater changes every night.

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Rock shows are the same way, but you can change gears a lot faster. I can turn around and tell the drummer, "Speed up, motherfucker!" You know, it's not a democracy. There's only so much room for everybody else to interpret anything in my songs. That's why I've never been in a band. I haven't had that much experience in a real collaborative art form, like theater is, so it's really good for me.

What surprised me about "Karla" is that it really doesn't hit you over the head with an explicit anti-death penalty agenda.

Ten years ago that's what you would have gotten. All the editing in this play was taking my agenda out of it. It was in the text in a big way in the first draft all the way to the last rewrite, which was done the night before we opened. There was still a lot of rhetoric in it, and I had to deal with that. I learned a long time ago that you don't -- let's take the whole thing over "John Walker's Blues." You're assuming a character and you're lending a voice to somebody and it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do. I've always done it, and the characters are rarely sympathetic. Sympathetic characters usually have a voice. They usually don't have any trouble being heard.

Does it surprise you that people react to your songs in that simplistic way? Like it's just you telling us what you think?

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Well, yeah. But on the other hand, a song like "Ashes to Ashes" is definitely what I think. It's this big Old Testament biblical language that probably came from writing this play and writing poetry. I never wrote that way before. That's a different gear for me. Or "Amerika v. 6.0": I believe absolutely every word in that song, so I don't have any problem with anybody mistaking that person for me at all.

But as far as "John Walker's Blues" goes -- I think I'm in a unique position to write that song because I'm not a Christian, I'm not a Muslim and I'm not a Jew, but I do believe in God. Definitely. I'm not an agnostic. I'm a true believer, but I just don't feel the need for a format to get there. My spiritual system is 12-step programs. That's the only one I've ever had. I didn't have one before that.

Did you believe in God before you quit doing drugs?

Well, I never adopted the atheism normally associated with my political beliefs. I always thought the biggest mistake Karl Marx made was denying poor people their spirituality, because it's all they've fucking got. I don't think you'll ever make a revolution by denying poor people God.

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I've never been willing to say, "There is no God." Before, it wasn't important to me whether there was a God or not. Now it's of paramount importance. It's absolutely necessary that I believe there's a power greater than I am, or I'm fucked. Recovery is just completely and totally based on that. My spirituality is very simple: I believe there is a God and it ain't me. And that's as far as I've got. And it's kept me clean for eight years.

Now, Karla Faye Tucker was a born-again Christian, of course, and you take her faith very seriously in the play.

See, well, I believe Karla. There are two leaps in the play. One is that I believe that Karla Faye Tucker was absolutely sincere in her faith. I had to come to the play believing that. I know a lot of people that knew her, although I never met her. I'm trying not to cultivate any more friendships [with death-row prisoners], because I don't want to see anyone else die. [Earle witnessed the execution of convicted murderer Jonathan Nobles in 1998, the same year Tucker was executed.] But most people believed Karla, including the guards, the warden, the people who had to participate in her death.

The other leap is that there's a cult around Karla and I'm not part of that. Karla belonged to a very strange sort of church, the church that Dana Brown belonged to, the man she married while she was in jail. [After Tucker's execution, members of the church had a party to celebrate her "homegoing" to Jesus.]

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This is also a play about the drug world, which is something you know pretty well.

It's in there. It's part of her story. I've never thought of it that way, to tell you the truth. It's part of her story, and when I write it becomes part of my story. The novel I'm working on now, drugs are at the center of it. I swore I'd never do that, but there are several short stories that I've written that deal with drugs, and I'm in a position to write about that very vividly. Writers are whores and they're gonna use whatever. If you can write about something, you're gonna be on that shit. Because it's gonna get you writing, and your biggest fear is an empty page.

You've talked a lot about your opposition to the death penalty. You've talked about your father writing a letter to the governor of Texas when you were 8 years old, to protest the execution of Ralph Carl Powers.

Right, well, the death penalty was being used so seldom then, even in Texas. It died of natural causes in this country. The Supreme Court throwing it out was a formality. We just became less willing to kill. In that case the murder victim's family had hired a special prosecutor to prosecute the case and put Ralph Carl Powers to death, which was legal in Texas at the time. My dad thought that was unfair and he wrote a letter to the governor, which was the first time I ever saw anybody take any sort of individual political action.

Then I saw the film version of "In Cold Blood" a few years later, -- that came out in '67, so I was 13. That was a mind-blower. Later I read it. What I always remember is the scene when Perry Smith is getting ready to be executed, and he's worried about soiling himself because he's heard that happens. He wanted them to let him go to the bathroom one more time, and they told him there wasn't time. Then the chaplain intervenes on his behalf. There's an illustration of the inhumanity of the death penalty -- in other words, what it does to us.

It took me years to be able to hang words on that. And it took talking to many murder victims' family members for me to get to the point that, you know what? My objection to the death penalty isn't that I'm trying to save anybody on death row. I'm trying to keep me from going to hell. In a democracy, if the government kills somebody then I kill somebody, and I object to the damage that does to my spirit. Period.

I object to it on political grounds as well, but that's peripheral. On political grounds I object to the government having that much power. It's always bad. The only way to make sure that it isn't abused is to not give them that power. So if anybody kills anybody, they're all dealt with the same way. That's what the ideal is to me. You know, there's 3,600 guys on death row in the United States right now. You think there's only been 3,600 heinous murders in the United States since 1974? That's ridiculous.

Maybe we became less willing to kill in the '60s, but we sure as hell became more willing to kill after that. What happened?

Well, a lot of things. The politics of fear, basically. Look, people go to law school in order to become prosecutors. You become a prosecutor in order to become district attorney, you become district attorney in order to become attorney general, you become attorney general in order to become governor. It's the fastest track from law school into politics, and the death penalty has been the hot-button issue.

First, you scare the fuck out of everybody, you know? You participate in making people afraid to go to their cars at night, and then you offer them the solution. It's really amazing what people will believe, because no one's ever been able to prove that there's any correlation between the death penalty and any deterrence of violent crime. Right now, murders are up 10 percent in Tennessee, right after we executed the first guy we've executed since the early '60s. It's not because we executed him, there just isn't any correlation at all. People that commit those kinds of crimes are not going, "Oh, they might execute me. I might get caught and they might execute me." That's ludicrous.

In the play, even though you accept Karla Faye Tucker's religious faith, you really don't let her off too easily for the horrible crime she committed.

Here was the biggest leap for me as a writer: I couldn't find any evidence that Karla Faye Tucker ever really dealt with what she did. I don't doubt her faith, but I do think there was a lot of denial there. So you're seeing Karla deal with it. That's what the play's about, more than anything else. Karla actually finally deals with what she does. Because in life, she didn't.

Do you believe we have to deal with what we've done after we die?

I'm not sure about that. I don't personally believe in heaven or hell, but I believe that Karla, when she went through the door, went to heaven. I believe that when Karla reaches that door at the end of the play, Jesus is there waiting.

To switch to another topic, can I assume you oppose any U.S. war against Iraq?

Look, the United States doesn't operate well without a bogeyman, and we haven't had a big one for a while. We're trying to make Saddam that bogeyman right now because we don't know where Osama bin Laden is and he might be dead. If he's dead, then we need another one. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, we've been searching for our identity.

Right now the Iraq thing isn't really working out, but they're gonna do it anyway. It's not even happening because of Sept. 11. They were trying to make it look like it was, and people aren't buying that. There was a plan to attack Iraq on Bush's desk before Sept. 11; I think that's fairly common knowledge. It's Dick Cheney who wants to attack Iraq, and he has reasons and they're all about money. It's not just oil. There's a lot of money to be made in war.

It was Dick Cheney who ran in what we called an election two years ago. It never was George W. Bush. You know, Dick Cheney was unelectable. He's not what we elect, but he is what gets things done. He is the most effective type of personality in this culture.

The lie about this whole thing that makes me the sickest is "They hate us because we're free." Well, let's forget about making judgments and just consider our adversary. Jeffersonian democracy? The Arab world doesn't even know what the fuck that is. They want a leader who's clear-cut and who stays with them until he dies. That's what they're comfortable with. That's what makes them sleep well at night. And in some ways they have a point, you know? [Laughs.]

We're completely missing the point. Yeah, we are in danger of drawing a line on the sand and declaring a war on Islam. And if we do that it ain't gonna be dropping a couple of bombs and it'll be over with. If we attack Iraq, it's on. They hate us because we support Israel and we support the House of Saud, which is one of the most repressive regimes that has ever existed anywhere on the planet. And we do it because of money. And until that changes ...

In Salon, we recently ran an interview with Christopher Hitchens, who argues that the old-guard foreign policy establishment, people like Henry Kissinger, would basically agree with you. They don't want to disturb the current balance of power or destabilize the Saudi regime.

Keep in mind that Christopher Hitchens wants to attack Iraq. What's happening with Christopher Hitchens, who I think is a brilliant cat, is that his drinking has finally gotten the best of him. When that disease reaches a certain place your behavior becomes antisocial and your judgment is impaired. Christopher Hitchens' judgment is impaired. I do believe what he's saying about those people, but the reasons for not attacking Iraq are not killing Iraqi civilians, and the fact that we do not have the right to pay less for oil than everybody else in the world does. We pay 25 percent of what the rest of the world pays for oil. It's a rigged game.

We don't need to start a war anywhere. It goes back to the Cuban missile crisis, you know, when Bobby Kennedy said, "We can't just attack somebody. That's not who we are." You know, OK, he was being naive. We attacked the fuck out of Mexico. We attack people all the time. But for me, I aspire to an America that doesn't ever strike first. Franklin Roosevelt, for all of its faults, aspired to an America that didn't strike first. That's what happened to us at Pearl Harbor. We knew it was coming, but we couldn't strike first. We didn't know that they would do what they did, where they did it or how devastating it would be. Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to strike first. I'm OK with that.

You know what? We're not going to be the most powerful country in the world forever. So what? That's what the song "Ashes to Ashes" is about, I guess. The difference between us and Europe is that nearly every country in Western Europe has been the most powerful country in the world for at least 30 seconds. They've lived through it. They've gotten through that to the other side and they know that there's life after that. With the possible exception of Britain, who are totally defined by their postcolonial self. That's who they are. They're like fucking Blanche DuBois. They're just sort of living in this world where everybody else is like, "Yeah, we know you had an empire. We heard about your empire."

I want to ask you about the song "Jerusalem." At the end of this album that seems unremittingly pessimistic, suddenly you've got this inspiring, seemingly impossible vision of hope and peace.

That's called faith. That's called believing in something even though you have absolutely no evidence that it exists.

That part of the world, we keep turning back to it. I'm a recovering addict and recovering addicts don't believe in accidents. We keep turning back to Jerusalem. When the peace talks fell apart, it was over Jerusalem. Palestinians were unwilling to walk away from Jerusalem. The Christians in the Middle East -- which is us, because Israel does not have the power to determine anything in the Middle East, the Palestinians do not have the power to determine anything in the Middle East -- we're unwilling to walk away from Jerusalem. All three parties are unwilling to walk away from Jerusalem.

Our attention has been turning back to Jerusalem for 2,000 years. Some of the holiest sites of these three closely related belief systems are in this one area, and three of the most sacred are in one piece of real estate smaller than this little neighborhood here. We keep turning back to Jerusalem for a reason. So I believe we'll get it right, or else. I believe we'll eventually do the right thing in that part of the world. I believe that our future, our existence as a species, will be determined in Jerusalem. I don't believe it's an accident that our attention keeps going back there. We have to get it right. If we don't, we're completely and totally fucked. So there's nothing left for me to do but have faith.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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