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The roots of revolution
Steve Earle stokes the political fires

Itís not the least bit unusual for a 15-minute interview with Steve Earle to turn into 45 minutes of political discourse, just as itís rare for one of his shows to last less two and a half hours. So when I caught him on the phone on his tour bus in Columbus last week, I was as ready to talk about the upcoming election as I was his latest album, the politically charged The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis/E-Squared) ó not that the two arenít tied to each other. Given "Condi, Condi" (perhaps the first ode to a cabinet member, albeit with tongue planted firmly in check) and the Ramonesy punk of "F the CC," not to mention "Rich Manís War" and "Home to Houston" (this last about a guy driving a truck in Iraq), you can see whatís on Earleís mind these days. Itís why heís spending four days playing Ohio (no modern-day Republican has won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State) and a few other swing states before hitting the East Coast for a stint that brings him to Avalon this Tuesday. And itís one reason he got into writing songs in the first place: his first gig was at an antiĖVietnam War demonstration at the Alamo back when he was just a teen. As usual, Earle, whose new album is doing quite well following the backlash over a song ("John Walkerís Blues") that tried to get inside the mind of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh on last yearís Jerusalem (Artemis/E-Squared), had plenty on his mind when he picked up the phone.

Q: So you really are treating this tour a bit like a political campaign?

A: Yeah, weíre concentrating hard on Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan on this first leg. Then on the final week before the election, weíre going to up and down the East Coast. But weíre here in Ohio for four shows, and the record was timed to come out because of the election. I wanted to be in New York for the convention just to fuck with the Republicans and to see those guys behind enemy lines.

Q: Do you really think of them as the enemy or even as evil?

A: I donít think Bush is evil, I think heís stupid. What dangerous about him is that heís become a real fundamentalist, and he believes he can fight fundamentalism with fundamentalism and win, which scares the living fuck out of me. Iím not a Democrat and Iím not a Republican. I donít think thereís anything wrong with being either. But these guys in power arenít Republicans. They arenít even conservatives. I can deal with conservatives in a democracy. But these guys are something else. And I do think there are people around Bush that may really be evil.

Q: Youíve had your own well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, and you know a lot about what goes on in the mind of someone whoís fighting to stay clean. Do you think that affects Bushís world view?

A: I totally empathize with Bush based on the substance-abuse problems he had. Before there were 12-step problems, the people who got sober were the people who embraced really hardcore forms of religion. So I do think we may have a president whoís embraced a form of fundamentalism to fill a gap in his life, and that scares me. I make [AA] meetings: thatís how I stay sober. Iím reasonably sure that as president, heís not able to do that.

Q: Between the Rock the Vote people, the MoveOn organization, punkvoter.com, and dozens of artists from the Beastie Boys to R.E.M. to Green Day and Blink-182, there seems to be a groundswell of activism the likes of which I havenít seen since the Reagan years . . .

A: Iíd go farther than that and say this is the most musical activism weíve seen since the Vietnam War.

Q: That said, a lot of the artists I mentioned are preaching to the converted. But youíre a country-rocker with bluegrass roots and a certain status in the heart of Bible Belt Nashville. Do you think you have a chance to win new converts?

A: Getting people out to vote ó thatís really what these tours all of us are doing are about, because that favors the Democrats. But music can change hearts and minds, and my audience, which isnít as big as the Beastie Boysí, ranges in age from college up to my age, which is 50, and even older. Not all of my audience agrees with me about the death penalty, which has been my main area of activism. And I know Iíve changed some minds in that area. Then again, I havenít been played on mainstream country radio in a long time, so I donít know.

Q: Has your politics kept you off the radio or just your style of music, which has varied from old-school bluegrass to roots with a harder-rock edge?

A: Thereís always a political aspect to what I do. Even "Copperhead Road" [a breakthrough track from the 1988 album of the same title] is a political song ó itís from my post-Vietnam record. So itís something Iíve never shied away from. Weíre just living in politically charged times, and thatís reflected in my songs. But itís always been a component of what I do. I just try to do it in pretty human terms. The only thing on this record thatís purely rhetoric is "F the CC." And I just find it hard to write chick songs in the current political climate. I mean, I gotta write some. Anyone who tells you that they didnít originally pick up a guitar to get girls is a liar ó thatís the very heart of rock and roll.

Q: Yes, but with the exception of "John Walkerís Blues," wouldnít you say this is your most political album ever?

A: It would be silly to deny that itís a political record. And itís more political than the last one. This one just had more of a direct agenda ó it couldnít help but be political. I think the big difference between this record and the last record is not so much the songs as the climate. This record has gotten on the radio easier than I have in years. The reviews, aside from the usual unintelligible review in the Village Voice, have been better than theyíve been in a while. And weíre selling records. So I think people were ready for this record.

Plus, people went off about "John Walkerís Blues." And those were the people I was trying to piss off. Theyíre being quiet now because I think they decided that they were empowering me a bit too much by paying too much attention to me. What bothered me the most about that song was the relative quiet from the center and the left. Now, Iím getting the feeling theyíre not as afraid to speak out, and theyíre a lot sicker of whatís going on politically.

Q: One thing I did notice when I looked at your tour schedule is that by November 9, youíll be in Europe for what looks like the rest of the year. Are you planning to get out of Dodge if Bush wins?

A: [Laughter.] No, no, no. Europe is a big deal for me. Itís a lot of money. In fact, we usually start our tours in Europe. This time I specifically wanted to be in this country until the election. But Iíll be back in the States in time for the holidays. If I were to leave this country, Iíd probably be living in Ireland or Spain right now. Because, if I do ever leave here, Iím going to walk ó Iím not going to run.

Steve Earle appears this Tuesday, October 26, at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call (617) 262-2424.

Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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