His name is Steve Earle, and he is one of a rare breed of major musical artists willing to alienate potential fans by speaking his mind. Unlike the late 1960s, when there was a vibrant counterculture producing its own propaganda, Earle pretty much goes it alone these days. The proverbial round peg in the holes of "squares" everywhere, he's not against ideology, but is against anyone who might foist theirs upon him. He's not necessarily "outlaw country" like his heroes Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, but he is against outlaw countries, including his own. He even wrote a song about the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, at a time when most in this country wanted the ex-patriot strung up by his stringy little beard. If this wasn't enough, he's also starting a new tour, Tell Us The Truth, with folks like Lester Chambers, Billy Bragg, and The Nightwatchman (ex-Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello).
But don't make the mistake of thinking Steve Earle doesn't have a heart (however bleeding). Go listen to him bend a note with Emmylou Harris, or Garrison Starr. Hell, just listen to him sing along with his backing band, The Dukes. He can write a ballad with the best of them, and knows that sometimes a simple love song can be the most powerful political statement there is.
Earle recently described his last full-length proper, Jerusalem, as his "Old Testament" record -- full of pain and war and unrest, and containing only one "chick song." If so, his new offering, Just An American Boy: The Audio Documentary, ought to be considered the aural equivalent of the Gospel of John. After all, if Jesus can throw the moneychangers out on their asses, just think what a good "ol boy like Steve Earle can do.
You'll notice you don't see the likes of alleged superpatriot Toby Keith calling out Earle, even though any random sliver of an Earle interview probably contains more potential fireworks than a year of Dixie Chicks concerts. Steve's sister Stacey once told me that her father is the real political junkie in the family, firing off letters to all manner of elected representatives on a near-daily basis. Steve says these ideals stuck with him, even through some of his darker days when he got to see the workings of this country's political system (any number of local jails, mostly) from the inside.
So how come nobody's coming after Steve Earle? It could be that Keith and his ilk fear a red, white and blue ass-kicking -- after all, gaining your toughness from a high-school football coach is much different than having submitted to and finally kicked an addiction to crack, Dilaudid and rotgut whiskey.
More likely, it's because Earle's music, full of emotion and substance, is too hard for the masses to digest in the first place. Why did nobody stop playing Steve Earle's records after the Walker Lindh song? Because nobody was playing his records before it, either.
Transcendence is a key theme in Earle's post-dropout work. Consider his album titles: Train A Comin'. Transcendental Blues. El Corazon (The Heart). The Mountain. Jerusalem. All looking to the future, all describing and mapping a journey, either internal or external.
Earle knows the best way to prepare for the future -- the unknown -- is to take care of the now. Handle your shit. Speak your mind. Praise the praise-worthy, and expose those who pass off their own private demons as those of our country. If enough people believe what you say is true, then change will come.
"I remain optimistic," Earle said when Jerusalem was released. "I am really fucking optimistic. That's the idea of "Jerusalem,' the last cut on the disc. You hear the bad news. You know it is not a lie. What happened on 9/11 was a horror, (and) what happens every day in Israel and Palestine can be a horror. But you try to see past that. You have to believe this will be better...I'm someone who has always wanted to believe. I'm good at it."
The musical message is much the same as the one you'll get from his life: one either rises from the ashes like a phoenix or blows away in the wind.
But the "rising" hasn't always been easy. He decided first to take on hard work, playing his ass off while he worked at a pizza joint to support himself. He then, in no particular order, took on Nashville, marriage, himself, drugs, fatherhood, bluegrass, more marriage, and finally those elected leaders in his country who didn't approve of such "diversity."
To quote one of the man's songs, it seems Steve Earle ain't ever satisfied.
Steve Earle and the Dukes will be appearing at the Visulite Theatre on Tuesday, November 4. For more information, call 704-358-9200 or log on to www.visulite.com.