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Talkin' 'bout revolution

Steve Earle on protests, art and his new CD


Singer, songwriter, author, playwright Steve Earle
  • Singer, songwriter, author, playwright Steve Earle

When we catch up with Steve Earle to talk about his new CD, The Revolution Starts ... Now and his participation in the upcoming Silver City Express (see cover story, page 15), he is an hour late getting back to his apartment because of traffic in New York City. It is the day before the protest marches that will precede the Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden.

Earle apologizes in his inimitable way.

"I was in a car in midtown Manhattan. The Republicans have got things fucked up."

Outside the convention, Earle will throw his support behind anti-war causes and humane welfare reform. He campaigns tirelessly against the death penalty in America. While in New York, he is staging readings of his first play, Karla, based on the life and death of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. The play debuted in 2002 at the not-for-profit BroadAxe Theatre in Earle's hometown, Nashville.

The brother of one of Tucker's murder victims is a friend of Earle's and a member of Murder Victims for Reconciliation, one of the organizations Earle supports.

"Not everyone who has lost a family member to murder believes that the killer should die," he said.

Earle burst onto the country music scene in 1986 with his crossover hit album Guitar Town. A brush with drug addiction in the early '90s earned him a jail sentence and he spent four years in recovery and incarceration. He returned to the music scene in fine form, surprising everyone by recording with the Del McCoury Band on the pure bluegrass, Earle-penned album Mountain. His critically acclaimed 2002 album, Jerusalem, marked Earle's eighth Grammy nomination and featured the controversial "John Walker's Blues," giving voice to captured American Taliban John Walker Lindh:

I'm just an American boy raised on MTV

And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads

But none of 'em looked like me

The Revolution Starts  Now
  • The Revolution Starts Now

So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim

And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word

Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

In his latest work, Earle has become even more outspoken. The Revolution Starts ... Now is an urgent diatribe against the war in Iraq and a call to political action. In late spring of 2004 when news broke of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, with the Bush administration "still reeling from the 9/11 commission hearings," Earle realized the presidential election -- "the most important presidential election of our lifetime" -- was only seven months away. He wanted to say something as an artist and as a citizen, and joined the growing number of musicians, actors, writers and filmmakers who are speaking out against the current administration and its policies.

The result is a hard-driving string of protest songs -- "Home to Houston" is the declaration of a truck driver in Iraq: If I ever get home to Houston alive/ Then I won't drive a truck anymore. "Rich Man's War" movingly depicts the boys who seek glory in war and the bosses who own them, and "F the CC" is a funny, scathing attack on the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission, the CIA and the FBI to curb our right to free speech.

The album switches gears with a lyrical duet with Emmylou Harris, "Comin' Around," that will play over the end credits of the upcoming film An Unfinished Life starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez (for more on An Unfinished Life, see "I Thought You Should Know" is the kind of sad, sexy ballad Earle writes best: In you're thinkin' 'bout breakin' my heart/ You might as well just pick up your little black dress and go/ Somebody else already tore it apart/ And I thought you should know.

"I'm proud of that one," he said. "[Revolution] is the only record I could make in this short time frame. I'd rather write about girls."

Earle will come to Colorado next week to join his buddy Kris Kristofferson, director John Sayles and others on the promotional tour for the upcoming film Silver City. His song from the album Jerusalem, "America v. 6.0" plays over the film's end credits.

"I love seeing Kris as a bad guy," he said. "I'm a Sayles fan. I love the fact that [in the opening scene, in an environmental promo shoot for candidate Dickie Pilager] he was fishing with a fuckin' spinning rig. That would have lost my vote right there."

Earle rails against the idea that it's inappropriate to criticize the administration's policies during a time of war or at election time.

"It is [appropriate] in a mother fuckin' democracy," he said. It's always appropriate. That's the one and only and always answer to that.

"I have a lot of faith in the Constitution in the long run," he added, saying he believes both the Patriot Act and the death penalty will ultimately be abolished. "It catches us in our mistakes."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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