Protest singers are in short supply and obviously needed. Which is why Steve Earle’s voice rises so clearly from the swamps of modern American music. He’s a man with a conscience who speaks his mind freely, and that’s a courageous and perhaps even dangerous thing in this time of diminishing constitutional and human rights.
Ever since he emerged from crack-cocaine addiction to recast himself from country-music maverick to songwriter with a social agenda in the early ’90s, Earle’s writing has sought to explore America’s great divides of race and class. And he’s campaigned for the anti-landmine movement, workers’ rights, and the repeal of the death penalty. His new Jerusalem (Artemis) is, save for a few love songs and the vague yet romantic modern cowboy anthem "Shadowland," at heart a protest album. But you probably know that already, thanks to the New York Post.
On July 21 — more than three months before Jerusalem’s release — the Post published a story accusing Earle of glorifying "American Taliban" fighter John Walker Lindh in his song "John Walker’s Blues"; this triggered a call from the right-wing media to boycott the singer and his recordings. It’s no surprise that conservative Nashville-based talk-radio personality Steve Gill was the first and the loudest aboard the bandwagon, or that so many country radio programmers climbed on. After all, country stations have played the hell out of Toby Keith’s moronic response to September 11, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)," in which Keith threatens to kick Osama bin Laden’s ass, in the process perpetuating the myth that this once-great style of American music is merely the province of rednecks.
Earle needn’t give a damn, because country radio and most country fans haven’t been interested in his music since the late ’80s, after he’d gained a toehold in the business with his 1986 debut, Guitar Town (MCA). For a brief time, as that rock-guitar-driven album slowly made its way to the top of the country charts, Earle seemed like the music’s golden boy. But he tarnished quickly as stories about his crack addiction, ruined marriages, and loose-cannon personality spilled into the press. When he was jailed, that capped it. Country programmers and fans are a largely conservative bunch, not likely to offer much empathy or support to even a former crackhead. And to this day Earle hasn’t won them back. Instead, his current audience is made up mostly of well-heeled urbanites and roots-music hipsters — musical elitists, for the most part, who listen to the singer-songwriter fare of "adult alternative" stations like Memphis’s WRVR "The River" or read No Depression and are capable of grasping subtle points.
What’s ironic is that Earle has spent almost his entire career playing the role of populist. He’s written an album a year over the past six years, each one full of songs about common people that celebrate their loves, dreams, and lives — lives that are often turned by fate in strange and tragic ways. It’s as if he had appointed himself Bruce Springsteen’s understudy and were waiting for the canny New Jersey songwriter to slip off his throne. The main difference between Earle’s characters and Springsteen’s is that the native Texan’s small-town Americans have dust, not grease, on their boots.
Earle’s infatuation with Springsteen began before Guitar Town. In the liner notes to this year’s reissue of the album, he wrote of his inspiration for its ignition: "I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Middle Tennessee State University, and they opened the show with ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Eureka! I knew what to do. I needed a song custom-built to kick-start this record I was writing — yeah that’s it, I’ll write a record (even if I don’t have a record deal), and I’ll write it to BE a record — not just a sound recording but a document about me and my life and the lives that touch me and if I listen closely and get it all down right and sing ’em like I mean it people WILL listen and they WILL care." And they did, at least for a time.
Earle’s use of Springsteen as a compass has produced some very good work when he’s stuck to pure storytelling. Among his best recent recordings is the 1997 album El Corazón (E Squared/Warner Bros.), with the Woody Guthrie tribute "Christmas in Washington" and the compelling murder ballad "Taneytown." There’s also "Ellis Unit One," which was featured in the soundtrack for the film Dead Man Walking and included in a different arrangement on last year’s Sidetracks (Artemis). What makes "Taneytown" so compelling is that Earle doesn’t impose any judgment on the narrator, who kills a man and lets his friend hang for the crime. The strength of "Christmas in Washington" is that he skewers his own foibles as much as he jabs at politicians. And "Ellis Unit One" may be his best piece of writing. Coming from the lips of a death-row guard, it describes the process of lethal injection and the behavior of the condemned men and their families, and it culminates in the guard’s fierce nightmare about his own execution. By using his rough oak-bark voice to give us the unsparing facts, Earle allows the horror of the death penalty to creep under our skin and fester, as it does in the guard’s psyche.
By sticking to the facts — those of a character’s viewpoint or those of a simple, unadorned story line — Earle makes his strongest statements. Maybe that’s something he learned from Springsteen. At the least, it’s something they share. Springsteen never judges his characters — not even the destructive, alcohol-possessed brother of his "Highway Patrolman" or the mad killer Charlie Starkweather in "Nebraska." There is no good or bad, no black and white. There are just people and their actions, and whatever details we need to draw our own conclusions.
Maybe it’s the pressure of being a man of conscience with a public platform in this era of post-attack hysteria. Maybe it’s ambition, or a desire to play the role of protest singer to its fullest. At any rate, Earle seems to have stepped off the Springsteen track for Jerusalem. He comes off as a self-righteous moralist in many of these songs, and they suffer for it.
That’s one reason it’s unfortunate that "John Walker’s Blues" has become a temporary banner for the dawning new era of protest. It’s just not good. Earle claims to have tried to get inside Walker’s head to tell the story, and if that’s the case, he must think Walker’s a simpleton — which his academic record and his convictions prove he is not. "I’m just an American boy — raised on MTV," Earle begins the number, "And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda-pop ads/But none of ’em looked like me." It’s as if he saw Walker’s decision to join the Taliban as an outgrowth of teenage angst, to say nothing of his implicit trivialization of those in Walker’s generation who, by extension, must see themselves as part of the MTV/soda-pop marketing culture. The facts are more complex and doubtless embrace everything from the sex-role ambiguities in Walker’s family (his father came out as gay) to his previous relationship with other religions and perhaps even influential peers. In the past, Earle has created vivid worlds for his characters that he could manage, embrace, and control, but stumbling blindly into someone else’s reality is an entirely different matter.
Add to that an annoying keyboard line that’s a lazy approximation of a Middle Eastern melody and the song becomes a failure at everything but provocation. Which puts Earle in the same league as the propagandists and demonizers he’s fighting. Bush has done nothing since the September 11 attacks but provoke. He’s run a game of manipulation in black and white — with good and evil, us and them, and a stack of "facts" all aimed to provoke Americans into a war that will draw our attention away from the New Depression, has already weakened the Constitution, and will leave only corporation lords the winners. By contrast, Springsteen’s "Paradise," from his recent The Rising, refuses to oversimplify. He balances the voice of a terrorist bomber with that of a bereaved widow, making a connection between the actions of one and the consequences they have on the other but at the same time revealing the two individuals’ shared desire for transcendence. Without taking sides, Springsteen shows the complexity of the stew all humanity has been plunged into, giving us the shades of gray we need.
If Earle’s point is that a Lindh-like conversion could happen to any young man, he fails to make it. And I’d wager he’s flat-out wrong. His other key protest songs on Jerusalem also have major flaws in reasoning. In "Conspiracy Theory," he offers the naive notion that preventing John F. Kennedy’s assassination might have kept the American Dream alive. The transcripts of and reports on Kennedy’s White House conversations have already deflated that myth: they reveal him as a shrewd politician more concerned about re-election points than civil rights and, through neglectful management and miscalculation, well on course for the bloody war in Vietnam. (If the White House had a conscience during JFK’s years, I’d suggest it was his brother Robert.) Then there’s "Ashes to Ashes." The song is an appropriate response to Bush’s invocation of God as an ally in his battle plans (a card bin Laden and other Muslim terrorists have likewise played to the hilt), but it’s also little more than a bracing, guitar-revved update of Dylan’s "With God on Our Side."
The more modest "What’s a Simple Man To Do?" may be Jerusalem’s best protest number. A Mexican tries to break out of poverty by temporarily becoming a nickel-and-dime drug dealer but ends up in prison. The story line questions the nature of justice without overtly raising the issue; the song is as sad and beautiful as "John Walker’s Blues" is hamfisted. It’s also proof that Earle doesn’t need to beat his chest or imitate anyone — except maybe Springsteen — to keep raising important issues with artful intelligence.