Steve Earle still pushing buttons with his politics
The folk singer Woody Guthrie used to have a message painted on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
It was a reaction to a number of things, in no small part to the rise of the Nazi regime in Europe during the early 1940s, when he first put it on the instrument. But Guthrie, who chronicled the plight of the downtrodden during the Great Depression, probably viewed the wealthy elite through similar spectacles.
Since Bob Dylan found religion in the 1970s, the popular music scene has lacked a firebrand of Guthrie’s caliber. Most of the political songs these days come from the world of intellectual hip-hop (go listen to “Reagan” on the album “R.A.P. Music,” released last year by Killer Mike). There are others — James McMurtry and Bruce Springsteen come to mind — but as far as overtly political songwriters go, few are as incendiary as Steve Earle.
Earle performs this weekend in Knoxville, and I hoped to interview him for this week’s edition, but unfortunately, he didn’t have time to talk. Since getting clean in the mid-1990s and serving some jail time for the wreckage caused by heroin addiction, he’s been on a non-stop tear through one album after another, 12 all told over the past 18 years, and he’s writing another book while on tour, according to his publicist.
I was disappointed, because since Sept. 11, Earle has been one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. government and the war on terror. His 2002 album, “Jerusalem,” and its 2004 follow-up, “The Revolution Starts Now,” were both aimed at hammering home Earle’s extreme far-left political views, and one song on the former — “John Walker’s Blues,” written from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan — put him in the crosshairs of a number of patriotic Americans who saw the song as somehow glorifying Lindh.
Like that of most songwriters, however, Earle’s tune is much more complex than that — as are the 12 songs on his most recent album, “The Low Highway,” released earlier this year. The song “Calico County,” for example, is the desperate tale of a meth cook whose only memory of his dad is watching the old man board a prison bus and who’s resigned himself to his lot in life; “Burnin’ It Down” is the story of a man sitting outside his hometown Walmart, contemplating his unraveled life and trying to go through with setting the store on fire.
It isn’t pretty, but life seldom is, and like many others — famous people and everyday folks alike — Earle is acutely aware of that fact. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s an advocate of radical change to make it better.
For years, he described himself as a Marxist; in a 2008 interview with The Socialist Worker, he called himself a socialist — a tame label at the time, but one that would resonate with all sorts of different meanings after the right-wing press got ahold of President Obama in the following years.
“I’m a socialist in a country where there’s no viable socialist party, and by viable, I mean in the sense of participating in these elections,” The Socialist Worker quoted him as saying. “Neither of these candidates are anywhere close to anything that I consider to be the left, but I’ll vote for whichever one gets the Democratic nomination in the general election.
“I’m not a Democrat. I vote outside the Democratic Party all the time. I just don’t do it in the presidential elections, and I’m probably not likely to, unless something drastically changes. Things are too critical right now. It’s not about lesser evilism to me. It’s about survival.”
I would have loved to ask him his thoughts now, five years later. I suspect like many of us on the left, he feels the idealism of an Obama presidency has fallen far short of its reality — but that the right, especially the new Tea Party movement in which Republicans eat their own for not being “conservative” enough, has drifted even further from the middle so many occupy than we have to the left.
No doubt, Earle still has a set of metaphorical crosshairs on his back, and given the conservative nature of East Tennessee, more than a few will be in attendance on Saturday night, screaming for him to play “Copperhead Road” and booing when he starts talking politics. (It happened the last time I saw him, and I’ve never understood someone willing to pay close to $30 for a ticket by a known political activist who gets irate when he shares his views.)
I can’t say I’ll be in attendance, but personally, I continue to admire Steve from afar for that very reason: In an age when so many artists worry far too much about selling records and shows, it’s refreshing to see someone like him put their personal principles above financial gain.
And of course, it’s always fun to watch how red-faced those who disagree with him so rabidly and viscerally become when he starts to preach. His machine may not be killing fascists in the same way Woody Guthrie’s did, but he sure gets under their skin, and that’s pretty fun to watch as well.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (email@example.com) or at 981-1144.