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Coming of age
Steve Earle hits his peak on Just an American Boy

Itís not too often that a singer-songwriter from the edges of the country and rock charts finds himself a topic on ABCís Nightline or in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But thatís where Steve Earle landed last year, six years after a serious dope habit earned him a spot inside a Tennessee prison and just before he released "John Walkerís Blues," a song about the American Taliban member discovered in postĖSeptember 11 Afghanistan. The controversy about the tune hit even before the disc it was on, 2002ís Jerusalem (Artemis), came out. It was fed, Earle says over the phone from Nashville, by people "who were reacting without ever having heard the song." Anyone who did pay attention to the lyrics found Earle painting a portrait of a lost kid looking for something meaningful in life and wondering why Allahís master plan had troops "dragging me back with my head in a sack to the land of the infidel."

Rather than face a possible death sentence, John Walker Lindh has since pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban and carrying weapons. And as the alarm of September 11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan has blurred into the confusing occupation of Iraq, other artists have weighed in, from Bruce Springsteen with "The Rising" to Robert Cray with "Time Will Tell." As Earle understates it, "A lot has happened since Jerusalem."

Certainly the fruits of his efforts over the past year have begun to ripen. A two-disc "audio documentary" of his tunes and monologues from 2002 performances in Toronto and elsewhere came out on Artemis last month. The documentary Just an American Boy, which takes its title from a lyric in the opening stanza of "John Walkerís Blues," is gearing up for limited release next month (itís scheduled for November 28 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre). And heís had a chance to look back at that volatile period when the mainstream media helped sweep him into the controversy surrounding Americaís reaction to September 11 ó a period during which his patriotism, his songcraft, and his motives were all questioned.

Earle admits heís had trouble with documentarians before: he fired one filmmaker for being too intrusive and "essentially trying to direct a documentary." But he says that Just an American Boyís Amos Poe (who directed the 1976 film Blank Generation, which featured footage of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and other artists associated with the NYC club CBGBís at its punk heyday) didnít bother him. At least, not all that much. "Well, it was six months with a camera up my ass," he half-jokes. "But Amos is a friend of mine, so that part was okay."

In fact, the only sequence he says he objected to was one that made his dog look crazed. "My dog doesnít like people who are covered from head to toe in one color of clothing. Cops, hotel maids, people like that. And Amos, itís all about cutting to him. He strung together about 15 or 20 pieces of the dog barking and tugging at his leash, shot six months apart." So the dogís big role got cut. But Just an American Boy does capture Earle in many of his current guises: a sharp-tongued pacifist whoís become an anti-war and anti-death-penalty activist; a between-tune comedian with a Texas drawl; and a rusty-edged rocker who likes his music loud, rowdy, and almost as ragged as Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

The CD version of Just an American Boy starts off with one of the best tracks from Jerusalem, the political mockery of "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)." And his political stance is bolstered by "Conspiracy Theory," a tune that opens with a poppy bass line that recalls Roy Orbisonís "Pretty Woman" before building up to a guitar grinder peppered with topical lyrics like "Half a million soldiers fly across the water/One in 10 never come back again." A chorus of background vocals cautions, "Hush now, donít you believe it/Cover your head now, close your eyes."

The CD also includes sturdy versions of title tracks from the early albums that established Earleís reputation as a top-flight Nashville songwriter with a bit too much rock in his roots for Music Rowís liking: 1986ís Guitar Town and 1988ís Copperhead Road (both on Uni/MCA). But what really distinguishes Just An American Boy from your average live album is the between-song commentary. Rolling into "Christmas in Washington" from 2000ís Transcendental Blues (Artemis), he says the song is about heroes ("It damn sure ainít about Washington") and mentions a few: Joan Baez for singing "Joe Hill" at Woodstock, former Illinois governor George Ryan for tossing out the death sentences in that state, and Vermont senator Patrick Leahy for challenging Attorney General John Ashcroft over the "Patriot Act."

The only covers in the set are a raucous, true-to-the-original version of the Nick Lowe tune popularized by Elvis Costello, "(Whatís So Funny íBout) Peace Love and Understanding," and "The Unrepentant," a song by one of Earleís main influences as a young songwriter, the late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Earle says that as the release date for the Just an American Boy film started getting close, he and Poe talked about tagging on some more recent interview material in order to catch up on the controversy that had been stirred up by "John Walkerís Blues." They decided against it: "The film documents the period it does." Besides, he adds, "The politics we are wading through now are a direct result of the politics at the time it was made."

Nevertheless, Earle canít help bringing up his tour of two countries that joined President Bushís "coalition of the willing" in the war on Iraq. In England and Spain, he observed that the people he encountered tended to share his opinion that the current administration in Washington is disastrously wrongheaded and that Americans donít quite understand how the world sees them. He follows the media closely, reads voraciously (he says heís currently working his way through Master of the Senate, Robert Caroís latest tome in his multi-volume LBJ biography), and has a knack for floating quips that would make perfect soundbites if he were running for office. "People in Europe are totally aware that itís this administration, not us. Western Europe is full of countries that were the most powerful in the world at one time, for at least 30 seconds. They know it doesnít last forever, and there is life after that. We donít know that yet. Weíre a young, brash, inexperienced people."

Asked whether presidential politics has begun to capture his attention, he inhales audibly. "Itís all about the presidential election. Bush is beatable and everyone should just drop everything and get him out of office. Thatís what itís all about for me right now."

In the meantime, heís started to write his next album while he wraps up a US tour. "Itís going to be pretty political. Jerusalem is rhetorical, and Iím absolutely unapologetic about that. This will be as political as Jerusalem, more anti-war, but more from a human place. Iíve only written two songs, and they are more about how war affects people and what people can do than about whatís wrong."

Earle has seen a lot in his 25-year career, from pitching demos in Nashville to catching fire with Guitar Town, from a $500-a-day dope habit to a prison sentence that finally helped him get clean. Along with dozens of songs, heís written a novel and a play. Now heís become one of the best-known and most respected political singers of his era. The one thing he says hasnít changed much over the years is the craft of writing a song. "The final assembly may happen in the computer, but I still carry a notebook."

He learned the craft from two Texas songwriting legends, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Both of them, as it happens, are featured in a documentary about songwriters, Heartworn Highways, which was shot in 1975 but recently recut and re-released on DVD with more footage of Earle and John Hiatt. Earle was just a kid then, a bass player in Clarkís band. Clark, he says, focused on the construction of a tune, structural tricks and internal rhymes and the things that separate a songsmith from a hack. Townes, on the other hand, "never showed me anything directly about writing songs. What I learned from Townes was that it is possible to do something because it is worthwhile and important, even if itís only important to you, and whether you make money or not. I watched him do that all his life."

Earle is, itís clear, doing stuff that matters to him, and he sounds as if he were in pretty good spirits these days. Heís on the Atkins diet, and he says he doesnít look much like the guy on the screen in Just an American Boy ó heís shaven and skinnier than he has been in years. And heís found a comfortable home for his art at Artemis, a label run by lefty music-biz mogul Danny Goldberg. "For the first time in my career, Iím not having to apologize for my music, and Iím enjoying it."

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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