“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 14, 2003, in Nashville.
Steve Earle: [Plays acoustic guitar music and sings] “Dear Graciela, I’m writin’ this letter deep in the night, and I’m all alone./ It’s nearly breakin’ my heart to tell you I’m so far away from home./ I know I swore I’d never cross the border./ I know I promised I’d return to you,/ but I lost my job in the maquiladora./ What’s a simple man to do?/ I met a man in Tijuana./ He said he had a job for me to do./ Standin’ on a corner in San Diego with a pocketful of red balloons./ All I wanted was a little money./ All I needed was a week or two./ I never even saw the police comin’./ What’s a simple man to do?/ So, tell my mama that I said I’m sorry./ I know she didn’t bring me up this way./ Ask if she could light a candle for me/ and pray that I’ll come home someday./ Oh, Graciela, won’t you please forgive me?/ I never meant to bring this shame to you,/ but I lost my job in the maquiladora./ What’s a simple man to do?”
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is an accomplished performer who has tackled compelling issues as a songwriter, an author, and a playwright: Steve Earle. Welcome, Steve.
Paulson: This is a busy time for you with this brand-new CD out called “Just an American Boy.” It’s a live double CD, and there’s a documentary of the same name?
Earle: Yeah, actually, this is the soundtrack to a documentary film that Amos Poe made.
Paulson: Sure, but you, you had some role in that, didn’t you, the documentary?
Earle: Well, yeah, I mean, it actually — it was really Danny Goldberg’s idea. Danny owns Artemis Records who I record for. And it was just when — before Jerusalem came out and all the sort of hoopla around “John Walker’s Blues” started, and it became very apparent that this wasn’t going to be like all the other promotional cycles on a record that I was talking to people that I don’t normally talk to, and Danny thought it’d be interesting to document it. And Amos is a friend of mine. We made a couple videos together, so, it made sense for him to do it.
Paulson: Danny’s kind of a troublemaker, isn’t he?
Earle: Danny — yeah. Irving Azoff called him a pinko, like, in public on a panel one time. He — Danny is — I mean, I’m not apologizing for my politics to anyone for the first time in my career. I mean, he’s an ACLU officer in two different states and nationally. And Danny suggested to me that I make an overtly political record, you know, after Transcendental Blues. And all he was trying to do was distinguish the next record from — make sure it wasn’t Transcendental Two. And that was a suggestion he made, which I didn’t think was such a great idea because I still write more songs about girls than I do anything else. But Sept. 11 happened, and I found myself making a record that I didn’t really think I would ever make.
Paulson: Well, the stakes have certainly been raised, and, and I’m curious where this impulse to be political and musical came from. Is that something you were raised with?
Earle: I was probably 14 when I started going out and playing in front of audiences, and the only audiences available to me were coffeehouses because I was too young to play in places where people were served liquor. And it was San Antonio, Texas, which is a very conservative military community, and, therefore, during the Vietnam War, was extremely polarized, especially as the war wore on and body bags started to come back. So, it just never occurred to me to separate issues and music. There’s stuff — I mean, believe me, it became a topic of conversation from my very first record, you know? You know, there aren’t a lot of songs about girls on this record. I mean, going back to Guitar Town. And it’s just — I never learned, to separate the two things. I think that’s what songwriting’s supposed to do. It’s just — and I had good teachers, you know? I knew Townes Van Zandt by the time I was 17, and when I moved here when I was 19, I met Guy Clark, and I played bass in his band. And songs are, you know — I’m not a political songwriter except in the sense that making art of any sort’s a political statement in and of itself, I think, especially in this atmosphere that we’re living in today. But, you know, I just happen to be living in really politically charged times right now, and I write about what’s going on around me.
Paulson: Right, and what you’ve always written didn’t get that kind of attention, perhaps, at a different point in history. For those who are not familiar with your work, Guitar Town was the breakthrough record, and you had a couple top ten singles off that, and after some challenges — personal challenges — and years where you’re pulling yourself back together personally, you came back with a series of critically acclaimed CDs that broke new ground for you and actually broke new ground for whatever the music is that you play. It’s certainly not country music anymore, is it?
Earle: Well, I mean, I think it’s — I think that what I do is, you know, truer to the spirit of country music and the country music that I loved than a lot of things that are on country radio nowadays. I sort of stopped being, you know, real concerned about what — where I was, what little bin I was — they stuck my records in at record labels a long time ago, just because I sort of had to. Sometimes it would be more convenient to be pigeonholed. It would make it easier to sell records, but we’ve learned over the years how to, you know, to look for alternative outlets, and we make it work.
Paulson: Let’s talk about the most notorious song you recorded in the last decade anyway, a story that reflects John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban.
Paulson: And this is a song on Jerusalem, and as you mentioned, it’s one that was leaked early. And I don’t know if that was intentional, but it was —
Earle: No, it was the, it was a stringer who happens to write for the New York Post sometimes, who comes to Nashville because he’s evidently a songwriter as well, that heard about the existence of the song from a friend of mine because I had played it for him in his studio. And he started looking around for it until he finally shook a, a — record labels sometimes do sort of advance copies that, you know, hand-burned CDs for really long lead time press like Rolling Stone. Those — you know, you want to get those things as early as possible for a review. And he found — he got a hold of a copy of it, and the New York Post piece came out.
Paulson: For those who haven’t heard it, this is a narrative. It’s a story about a young man. It’s not a — you’re not glorifying him. You’re trying to relate to his experiences.
Earle: I’m certainly empathizing.
Earle: And I had a reason for doing it. I have a 21, almost 22-year-old now, son. I have a son almost exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh. And for some reason, the way I related to it when I first saw him, you know, duct-taped naked to a board on CNN, I saw an underfed, you know, 21-year-old kid, and I got a kid that looks underfed even when I feed him, and I related to it as a parent. The first thing I thought is, “He’s got parents somewhere.”
Paulson: And, so, this is a song you’re proud of, and it is empathetic. And suddenly, the New York Post is calling you a traitor.
Paulson: And there’s a talk show host in Nashville who’s appearing on national cable TV — entire hour discussing your un-American activities.
Paulson: Was that a shock?
Earle: No. It was exactly what I expected to happen in this atmosphere. You know, I think it’s something to be concerned about, because these are fairly mainstream outlets. I mean, they have become mainstream outlets. For some reason, radio and television with that point of view gets better ratings than television and radio with a point of view closer to mine. And to me, democracy’s supposed to be about both viewpoints being heard, and especially in a two-party system, which our Constitution doesn’t prescribe a two-party system anywhere, but that’s what we have, in effect. And, in a two-party system, when everyone tries to occupy the middle, then, you know, really bad things start happening. And, you know, I don’t see a lot of difference between political parties now. People in Europe think it’s laughable that we think there’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans. And, this is a really volatile time, and, so, the people that reacted were the people that I expected to react. But I do think there’s a new form of censorship. There’s a new form of blacklisting that’s going on. You know, the New York Post is a good example. They have a traitors list. I’m on it. And it’s called the traitors list. And these are people that can’t even define the word “traitor” when it — properly, when it comes to John Walker Lindh. I was on one of these right-wing talk shows the other night, and he — the guy said, “Well, you wrote, you wrote this song about John Walker Lindh. He’s tried for treason, convicted of treason.” And I said, “No, he wasn’t. He was never tried for treason. He was never actually even accused of treason officially.” And he said, “Well, then, what was he convicted of?” I said, “Ah, ah, aiding” — or, no — “offering comfort to an enemy of the United States” is what the official charge that he pled guilty to was. And he had to admit that I was right about that, and he said, “But, he’s a traitor.” And it’s — that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because, you know, in my belief, going from Sept. 11 to attacking Iraq, for instance, requires racism to get there. I think you have to get into a mind-set that an Arab is an Arab and a Muslim is a Muslim to get from there being a reason to attack Iraq because of what happened on Sept. 11, because the two things — no one’s presented any evidence that the two events have anything to do with each other.
Paulson: I’m curious. When you go on Bill O’Reilly’s show, you know what kind of reaction you’re gonna get.
Paulson: Why do you do it?
Earle: I did it because of the “Tell Us the Truth” tour, which I’m currently engaged in, and it was just the old maxim about, you know, “There’s no such thing as bad press.” It was about — the worst-case scenario is, I get my butt kicked for a half an hour verbally, and, you know, and it’s still exposure. And it was just — it was worth doing for that reason. You know, when it came to just promoting my record, I turned down O’Reilly earlier in the year because I didn’t really feel like he was advantageous to what I was trying to accomplish, and this time, I did, so, I did it.
Paulson: We should let viewers hear for themselves. “John Walker Blues,” will you play that for us?
Paulson: Thank you.
Earle: [Plays somber notes and sings] “I’m just an American boy raised on MTV./ And I’ve seen all them kids in the soda pop ads,/ but none of ‘em look like me./ 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./ A shadu la ilaha illa Allah./ There’s no god but God./ If my daddy could see me now, chains around my feet,/ he don’t understand/ that sometimes a man’s got to fight/ for what he believes./ And I believe God is great./ All praise due to Him./ And if I should die,/ I’ll rise up to the sky, like Jesus,/ peace be upon Him./ A shadu la ilaha illa Allah./ There’s no god but God./ We come to fight the jihad,/ and our hearts were pure and strong./ Oh, when death filled the air,/ we all offered up prayers/ and prepared for our martyrdom./ But Allah has some other plan,/ some secret not revealed./ Now they’re draggin’ me back/ with my head in a sack/ to the land of the infidel./ A shadu la ilaha illa Allah./ A shadu la ilaha illa Allah.”
Paulson: As powerful as the first time I heard it, which was actually at The Bluebird Cafe shortly after the mess broke. And it was a night dedicated to free speech, and you were there, and you were kind enough to do that song. And I was struck that night, though, that there was no booing; there no was no hissing; but it was exactly half the applause I’d heard you get for anything else you’d ever performed. And it was like people were sort of afraid to commit. Have you noticed that with audiences?
Earle: Yeah, it’s, ah, and it’s not just this. And I think I understand that phenomena. And I think it’s — I think there are people in this country that have also recognized that phenomena and have used it to their advantage to further a viewpoint of their own, and — in the sense that people are — I work with — I did a lot of work against the death penalty, and one of the first things you learn when you do activism against the death penalty, if you want to do it effectively is, the one thing you cannot do is disrespect the feelings of victims’ family members. Victims’ family members are, are exactly the leverage that is used to put people on death row. If you can’t get a victims’ family member on the stand and get him to cry, you don’t get a death sentence, ‘cause we, as human beings, are — and Americans are just not that willing to kill. It takes a lot to get us to kill someone. It’s — we all became victims’ family members on Sept. 11. And I’ve had to respect that, but that being said, that doesn’t shut me up, because I believe that what you were witnessing that night was everybody looking around to see if it was all right. And they didn’t — it was too soon. They didn’t know whether it was okay to feel that way. And I think that that is being leveraged by people with an agenda in the country that we live in today.
Paulson: You mentioned the death penalty. You are a man who’s never reluctant to speak up for what you believe in, and, you know, this show is really all about artists who make that decision, whether they’re conservative or liberal. Just basically taking a stand in America is risky if you’re an artist or performer, riskier for some than for others.
Paulson: And you’ve chosen to channel a lot of your energy into the death penalty battle. What drew you to that?
Earle: It found me. I mean, it was something that I always, I always believed the death penalty was wrong, but I wrote a song called “Billy Austin” in 1990, or ‘89, actually, I wrote it. And people started calling me. And what I did was, I’d show up in a limo and get out and sing a song at a rally, and then I’d get back in the limo and go home feeling really good about myself. But things changed in my life. I’m a recovering addict, and I started doing everything different after I got out of jail and after, you know, I got clean. And one of the first things that happened is Tim Robbins called me about “Dead Man Walking.” And I wrote “Ellis Unit One” for the, for that movie. And I met the people that — the group that that record, that soundtrack, benefited — because those proceeds were all donated to a group called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, and I met these amazing people who had lost a loved one to violence who went out and worked against the death penalty at their own expense all over the country. And I thought that was a mind-blowing thing. And from them, I learned that activism can — is sometimes a little more than showin’ up and started getting really involved on a full-time basis in the movement against the death penalty in this country.
Paulson: You’ve also extended your beliefs in the form of a play called “Karla.”
Earle: Right, yeah, “Karla” was — it was a really interesting experience, because writing a play’s really, really hard work, and I swore I’d never do it again when I was about halfway through the process of writing and producing “Karla” here with Broadaxe, our theater company here in Nashville. But, you know, originally Sara Sharpe — my girlfriend — and I met doing work against the death penalty. And the I — and she’s an actor, and the idea was something for us to do together where we have this common ground around this belief of ours. And you know, it took three years because I sort of made a few records and did some other things in between, but I’m pretty proud of it. And I’ve just published it. I’ve just — there are three theater companies outside of Nashville looking at it now, and I’ve sort of let it go to see what somebody else can do with it. And — but it’s — and I probably will write another play, because it was — it is pretty gratifying. It’s really, really hard work, but it is interesting.
Paulson: You were interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times not long ago, and a great quote about the Constitution which, given my profession, I tend to look for, and you said, “I believe our Constitution is this document that’s a lot hipper than its framers intended it to be.”
Earle: Yeah, I do believe that’s true, ‘cause we’re — I mean, I’m not one of these people that’s laboring under a delusion that we’re a nation born of a revolution of the people. We’re a nation born of a revolution of rich farmers that didn’t want to pay their taxes. And, if you, you know, look around, we’re still kind of rich farmers that don’t want to pay our taxes. And — but I do believe that they were very conscientious about trying to make a document that ensured that they weren’t going to run into some of the troubles that they had run into before, you know, dealing with, with England, basically. And I think they might have gone a little bit too far, and they — I think what they created is — when we’re gone — and we’re going to be gone one of these days — and they dig us up and dust us off, and we’ll be remembered for maybe rock and roll, maybe baseball, but definitely for our Constitution. I think it’s going to be like, you know, the Magna Carta or the Code of Hammurabi. I think it’s going to be one of those documents that people look at, and when someone else forms a democracy in the distant future, I think it’s going to be a template in some — and a guide for, for future democracies.
Paulson: When you think about it, all these conversations, people say, “Well, what would the founding fathers have done about the Internet or about topless dancing or about the KKK marching down Main Street?” They had no idea. They had no clue.
Earle: Yeah, that’s true.
Paulson: But they unleashed this thing that worked and has worked.
Earle: Yeah, and it’s continued to work. It has been, it has been assaulted from every angle, and sometimes, it ceases to work temporarily in one area or another because the process takes awhile, and we’ve had, you know, three different, you know, like, witch hunts around Communism, for instance, in three different periods in our history. We’ve had, you know, other periods. You know, we’ve had Japanese people being interred during World War II, but German people weren’t. We’ve had a lot of other things happen. But eventually, I really do believe that the Constitution gets around to addressing those things. And then when the death penalty goes away — and I believe it will, just like it did the first time — it’ll be the Constitution that’s brought to bear.
Paulson: Well said. In the few minutes we have left, could we hear one more song?
Earle: We can probably hear part of one. This is like — [Plays rhapsodic music and sings] “It’s Christmastime in Washington./ The Democrats rehearsed./ They’re gettin’ into gear for four more years./ Things not gettin’ worse./ The Republicans drink whiskey neat/ and ‘Thank your lucky stars,’/ they say, ‘he cannot seek another term./ They’ll be no more FDRs.’/ And I sat home in Tennessee/ staring at the screen, _ _an uneasy feeling in my chest./ Wonderin’ what it means./ So, come back, Woody Guthrie./ Come back to us now./ Tear your eyes from paradise./ Rise again somehow./ If you run into Jesus,/ maybe he can help us out./ Come back, Woody Guthrie,/ to us now./ There’s foxes in the henhouse./ There’s cows out in the corn./ And our unions have been busted,/ their proud red banners torn./ But if you listen to the radio,/ they’ll tell you all is well,/ ah, but you and me and Cisco/ know it’s going straight to hell./ So, come back, Emma Goldman./ Rise up, old Joe Hill./ The barricades are goin’ up./ And they cannot break our will./ And come back to us, Malcolm X/ and Martin Luther King./ And we’re marching into Selma/ while the bells of freedom ring./ And come back, Woody Guthrie./ Come back to us now./ And tear your eyes from paradise./ Rise again somehow.”
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