Steve Earle.

AuthorSimmons, Michael
PositionThe Progressive Interview

"Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America," writes Steve Earle in the liner notes of his most recent album, Jerusalem (Artemis). The Texas-native, Nashville-resident raised hackles last year with one song from that album, "John Walker's Blues." It tells the story of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, from Lindh's perspective. "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."

A student of dissent, Earle was prepared for the controversy. Like other radical patriots, he believes he has an obligation to insist on "asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."

The forty-eight-year-old recovering dope fiend and maverick country rocker rages against the injustices of Enronomics, the death penalty, and the erosion of free speech. An activist, author, playwright, and actor whose primary occupation is singer-songwriter, Earle has the conviction and skill to turn a refusal to be fooled again into great popular music.

With more than a dozen best-selling albums since his groundbreaking Guitar Town in 1986, Earle has obliterated genres: He's a leftwing country singer and hard rocker with a serrated punk edge. A longtime junkie, he got popped twice in '94 in Nashville, did brief jail time, and sought treatment. Now clean and sober, he's released seven albums in seven years. He also wrote a collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses. And he co-founded the BroadAxe Theatre, a company in Nashville that recently produced Karla, a play he wrote about executed Texan Karla Faye Tucker. In his spare time, he played the part of a recovering addict on HBO's The Wire. He's an activist for the international campaign to ban land mines, and he's actively involved in the movement to end the death penalty.

On the suggestion of Artemis Records chief and civil liberties advocate Danny Goldberg, Earle decided to make an album almost entirely devoted to the depressing state of this country and the world. Jerusalem may be his finest album in what has been an extraordinary career. Taking on HMOs, the prison-industrial complex, Wall Street, conspiracy theories, drugs, and maquiladoras, he rose to the challenge of making an urgent album with unforgettable melodies and scrunchy guitars.

I interviewed Earle in Los Angeles on October 7 and by phone from Nashville on October 17. He has the down-to-earthiness of a Texan and a hipster's disdain for what the squares think of him.

Q: What are your feelings on the music business in Nashville?

Steve Earle: A lot of people try to set me up to badmouth Nashville, and I hate the way country radio sounds now. But I didn't like a lot of it in the '80s when I was making records, and I really haven't liked a lot of it in a long time. The music industry in Nashville is...

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