Thanks to the tabloid press, even people who have never heard Steve Earle's music know who he is --- the guy who wrote that anti-American song about that punk kid from California who joined the Taliban. That's almost right. Except for the “anti-American' part. Because on the short list of American patriots, the thinking person will always pick Steve Earle.
Why did Earle write that song?
“I have a son almost exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh,” he told an interviewer. “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.'”
Duh. That's not an apology for the kid's views; it's a look inside his head to try and figure out how he came to have those views. Which is how Steve Earle works --- he's always the guy with an oblique slant, a fresh angle. That was a good thing when he hit Nashville in the mid-1980s; the country music machine had run out of stars and was willing to consider someone who didn't color between the lines. So, for a while, Steve Earle was the next Hank Williams, the next Johnny Cash, the next Springsteen.
Nice comparisons, but untrue. He was condemned to be himself: a “hard-core troubadour” with a penchant for politics and a weakness for drugs. So there were six marriages (“You can't say I have a problem with commitment”), jail time for drugs, and, since his release, six CDs in as many years, a book of short stories, a play and innumerable concerts and benefits.
Category: Call him the King of “alt country.” But that makes him sound as if he's still wearing a chip on his shoulder--- and the simple fact is, Steve Earle's love songs alone put him in the pantheon. “I still write more songs about girls than I do anything else,” he says, and those songs run the gamut from macho-comic (“I Don't Want to Lose You Yet”) to the unabashedly heartbreaking (“I Can't Remember If We Said Goodbye”). [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
But yes, of course, there are also political songs. “I was probably 14 when I started going out and playing in coffeehouses in San Antonio,” he explains. “That is a very conservative military community, and, therefore, during the Vietnam War, it was extremely polarized, especially as the war wore on and body bags started to come back. It just never occurred to me to separate issues and music.”
In the hope that you will fall under his spell, my choice of a starter CD is, perhaps, a curious one: not his most recent release, but his first one. “Guitar Town” is the kickoff of his career, and it begins with lyrics that both acknowledge that and celebrate it: “Hey, pretty baby, are you ready for me/I'm a hard rockin' daddy down from Tennessee.” A few lines in, he confesses he's got “a two-pack habit and a motel tan.” And just to make sure he's slapped you awake, he offers up the totally incorrect observation: “Everybody said, ‘You won't get far/on thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar.'” And that's all in just the first song!
The rest of the CD touches all the emotional bases, from parental love to “my old friend the blues.” Politics? “I was born in the land of plenty/now there ain't enough,” he sings, but not so it would grate. And, on the remastered edition, there's a bonus track: Springsteen's “State Trouper.”
If ever there was a “modern classic,” this is it.