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Ballad of Johnny Taliban: Steve Earle Picks Another Dumb Fight

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He was the barely known opener at a six-act country concert in the
sticks south of San Diego. I can’t remember exactly how he insulted that
afternoon crowd of cowboy hats — maybe it was just his long greasy hair
and lack of Nashville sparkle — but it was interesting enough to lure me
behind the outdoor stage to his ugly tour bus. Waylon Jennings was singing
while somebody on Steve Earle’s payroll told me to get lost. Finally Earle
stepped down and I asked for a quick interview. He grumbled until he heard
“college paper,” and then he was Mr. Friendly.

That was 1986, when college radio was going to save rock n’ roll from
itself. Earle was climbing the Billboard country charts with his debut,
“Guitar Town,” but he really wanted to be on the playlist with Hüsker Dü
and the Replacements. So we sat in the bus for an hour, talking about
everything but the popular Nashville music of the day. After a decade of
chasing country stardom, it was pretty clear he already despised the prize.

A few nights later, Earle played a cowboy club on the other side of the
county. He wouldn’t let the promoters or deejays on the bus, but I found
the Beat Farmers’ Country
Dick Montana
inside. Narcotics were in evidence. Earle and his band,
the Dukes, played a fine show that night — including a long, weird version
of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” The crowd didn’t much like it, but
Springsteen had been spotted at Tower Records on Sunset Strip forcing
copies of Earle’s LP on strangers. Now that was important.

That’s how Earle’s brain works. By the late 1980s, he hated Nashville so
much that he started to dress and act like Axl Rose … or Rose’s gun-nut
cousin back in Tennessee. He lost his record contract, a couple more wives,
and all of his teeth. The judges finally tired of his dope-sick face and
tossed him in prison.

This week’s trouble is vintage Earle. For his new album, “ href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006GEX6/kenlaynecom">Jerusa
lem,” Earle wrote and recorded a new song from the href="http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/18614#308196">imagined point of
view of American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Even though the
criminal-narrator formula has long been used by the likes of Merle Haggard,
Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Springsteen, Nick Cave, Eminem and another
thousand songwriters, Earle told a Canadian crowd his latest
contribution to the genre “just may get me fuckin’ deported.”

(On his own Web site, Earle href="http://steveearle.com/bio.html">contradicts this claim by saying,
“I’m not trying to get myself deported or something” and calls the new CD ”
the most pro-American record I’ve ever made.”)

It’s vintage Earle, both the song and the melodrama. Since getting out
of jail and kicking his chemical habits, Earle has painstakingly rebuilt
his career with a string of href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/artist/glance/-/56104/ken
laynecom">excellent, thoughtful albums. He’s become an ace producer and
godfather to the alt-country scene. But he still can’t get along with
people, as proven by his late 1990s’ immersion in bluegrass: he worked hard
with the Del McCoury Band for “The Mountain,” then turned mean when the
Christian bluegrass boys got sick of his foul mouth.

The latest outrage was all over href="http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,58290,00.html">FoxNews and
talk radio. While his loyal fans will brush it off as another chapter in
Earle’s endless effort to pick a fight, those who don’t appreciate his
music see it as a George Michael-esque attempt to “rebuild his faltering
career,” as Nashville deejay Phil Valentine told the New York Post. Who
cares what some Nashville deejay says? It’s not like you hear Steve Earle
on Hot Country 107.5.

His career seems just fine. He’s got plenty of money and makes the music
he wants. His last six records have all done well on the Americana, AAA and
Billboard country charts — pretty good considering commercial radio
doesn’t play such music outside of Texas. And he’s been nominated for href="http://steveearle.net/accolade.htm">eight Grammy awards while
routinely topping the critics’ lists.

While the New York Post might not think much of Earle, the New Yorker
and New York Times can’t seem to get enough of him. He even got a publisher
to put out a collection of his href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0618219242/kenlaynecom">short
stories last year.

And there’s the danger. That fancy Manhattan attention got to Earle’s
already big head and convinced him he wasn’t just a talented Texas
songwriter, but a Serious Writer addressing Serious Issues. And serious
writers type dull short stories for other serious writers to praise. Last
time I saw him on Letterman, he was wearing eyeglasses, for God’s
sake.

It’s one thing to annoy conservative Nashville with coffeehouse claims
of Marxism and stands against the death penalty and land mines, as Earle
has done for years. His fans can take or leave this stuff, as long as the
music’s good. And it’s fine to write a song about Johnny Taliban, because
who hasn’t wondered what goes on inside that kid’s head?

The trouble comes when you let the ruckus kill the art, when you claim
oppression before the record is even released. Unless this country
magically became Iran yesterday, performing a controversial song is still
punished by a lot of free publicity. I’m hoping Earle won’t will leave the
phony martyr routine to href="http://groups.colgate.edu/aarislam/susan.htm">Susan Sontag. It’s
a tired, dull act.

* * *

Earle has used the href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-transcendentalblues.html#TheBoyWhoNeverC
ried">Holy Land/ href="http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=%22steve+earle
%22+lyrics+jesus">Jeebus/ href="http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=%22steve+e
arle%22+lyrics+devil">Devil/ href="http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=%22steve+e
arle%22+backwards+guitar">backwards guitar thing pretty often. Anybody
surprised by an Earle album called “Jerusalem” hasn’t been paying
attention.

He’s also written songs with characters endorsing href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-transcendentalblues.html#AnotherTown">ar
son, href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-transcendentalblues.html#AllOfMyLife">ps
ycho stalking, assault with href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-elcor.htm#Taneytown">various href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-ifeel.htm#SouthNashvilleBlues">deadly > href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-coppe.htm#devilsrighthand">weapons,
the consumption of href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-ifeel.htm#CCKMP">coke and heroin,
and href="http://www.steveearle.net/ly-sidetracks.html#EllisUnitOne">executing
people for a government paycheck.

So, all of y’all want to scream and whine about the same guy writing a
song from the viewpoint of some dipshit Marin County boy who couldn’t pull
off hip-hop and became one of those head-bobbing Madrassa fruits instead,
go right ahead. I’ll still be poor and Steve Earle will still be rich. But
I’ve never been bothered by Earle having money. Crazy Chomsky-reading nut
that he is, he at least deserves some coin for 30 years of honky-tonk
labor. At least he doesn’t have a university degree. Hell, he doesn’t have
a href="http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=1314&cf=1314">high
school diploma.

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About Ken Layne

  • Bill

    Anybody know if this is the same Steve Earle who plays drums in Hermano (hard rock band fronted by ex-Kyuss singer John Garcia)?

  • http://www.thenewforum.ca/ M-J

    You claim saying something controversial and then letting the ruckus overshadow the art is a tired act; yeah, well, so is taking one pinch controversy, a smidgen of artist reaction, and using it to spin an oh-so-clever contrarian angle. Have you heard the song, or the album?

  • http://www.vanitysite.net zizka

    Walker is a confused kid, he screwed up some, and he’s going to have a lot of time to think things over.

    He did one thing which the CIA couldn’t do, though, and that’s infiltrate al Qaeda. He also attained fluency in Arabic, which almost no one in the CIA or the State Department has done. (Not nobody, but few).

    Language study is tough. Even (American) liberal arts graduates seldom really learn even just to read one easy European language. (Yeah, French, German and Spanish are easy).

    I’ve studied foreign languages and taught English and Chinese, and in that one respect Walker is an impressive guy.

  • A

    No, I don’t believe Steve has ever played drums.

    Also, the problems with the Del McCoury Band had to do mostly with money, not Steve’s language.

  • Neil

    That was interesting, if kind of all over the map. I would have liked to have seen the thoughts a little more organized. I’m not sure you quite know what things you like and what things you don’t. If you do, this doesnn’t make it clear.

    You seem way to smart to have a sloppy error like this, though —

    “Earle told a Canadian crowd his latest contribution to the genre “just may get me fuckin’ deported.”

    (On his own Web site, Earle contradicts this claim by saying, ‘I’m not trying to get myself deported or something” and calls the new CD ” the most pro-American record I’ve ever made.’)”

    There isn’t a contradiction. Anyone should be able to see that.

    I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I knew could or even probably would have a certain consequence. That doesn’t mean it I did it for that consequence. Basically it’s not different than a high school kid saying “If I break curfew to stay with my friends and drink beer, then I’ll probably get grounded.” That doesn’t mean getting grounded was the hoped for consequence.

    I’m not trying to compare Steve’s comments to that level of maturity, just to a situation that demonstrates how simple and obvious the two statements flow together. They make such obvious sense that calling it a contradiction seems tantamount to a lie.

  • http://www.divinepoet.com dj

    this is one o the greatest songs ever written-next to anything by rozz williams- i am bored by radio, mtv, vh1, led zeppelin, give me steve earle!

  • Eric Olsen

    I don’t see this as one of is better songs, but I am pleased you have found Steve.

  • Scott Butki

    I have tremendous respect for Earle. He’s one of the good ones, in my book.
    He does not have a great singing voice but he takes on challenging topics and won’t back down.

    I wrote a review of two movies by Earle here.

  • Scott Butki

    Making this song was a daring movie precisely because it makes people like this reviewer angry. But I think there’s nothing wrong with telling a story from another character’s perspective. Look at some of Springsteen’s darker songs, for example.

  • Duck

    Well put. But he’s always doing something interesting with his presence and stories and the collaboration with the McCoury’s was a bright spot, more than worth the trouble. I saw that particular show live in a large club with about 800? people. He started solo with a long 20 minute story song about his hometown. Totally mesmerized the crowd. I don’t think anyone even moved until he was finished.