Q&A with Steve Earle
Steve Earle is a shadow of his former self.Seriously. He’s been on the Atkins diet, which has stripped more than 50 pounds off his frame, and the 48-year-old singer-songwriter is nearly unrecognizable when he walks into a conference room at his record company offices.Being active works well with a diet, and Earle is typically busy. He’s the subject of “Just an American Boy,” an Amos Poe documentary that focuses on his political activism. A two-CD live album, released by Artemis Records, preceded it.Also this month, he joined Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and other artists on a brief concert tour to call attention to media consolidation.AP: Did the reaction to “John Walker’s Blues” (where Earle was criticized in conservative media outlets for writing from the perspective of American Taliban John Walker Lindh) make you regret writing the song?Earle: Absolutely not. The negative reaction came from people I expected it to come from. That’s a really good barometer. … Then again, equating that to a really serious political discussion is like thinking that pro wrestling is real. It’s like that Toby Keith song. It’s not a political dialogue. It’s pandering. It’s pandering to people’s worst instincts at a time they are hurt and scared. I don’t think it’s OK, but I do defend it on a First Amendment basis.AP: Are you disappointed there aren’t more people writing political songs?Earle: Not disappointed. What will happen is I think more people will. People who are capable of it will start doing it. I think music helped stop the Vietnam War, I really, truly believe that with all my heart. I was there.AP: What were the most heartening and disappointing reactions you got to your “Jerusalem” album?Earle: Most people got it. I think the most disappointing thing was that I saw people, in the course of positive reviews, sort of pan “John Walker’s Blues’ as a song. I saw it happen twice. I think it’s by far the best song on the record. “Jerusalem’ is the only song that’s close. I’m really proud of it lyrically and I’m really proud of it musically.AP: How do you think the documentary came out?Earle: It was much easier to sit through the film, when it premiered in Toronto, than I thought it was going to be. I’m not the person to ask. The main message of it – this idea that artists are supposed to keep their mouths shut in times like these is dangerous – that’s the most important thing to me.AP: Why did you decide to put out a live album to accompany it?Earle: Live records in and of themselves are completely and totally irrelevant. If I want a great tape of my band I’ll go on the Internet and get one from a fan. I was struggling. … How am I going to make this something that anybody is going to want to buy, especially at a time when people are having trouble selling records? And I stumbled upon the idea of building it around monologues.AP: Have any of your old songs changed in meaning for you?Earle: “The Devil’s Right Hand’ has changed for me. At the time I wrote it, I owned lots and lots of guns. And I grew up believing that was a fundamental right, and I’ve changed my mind about that. I think it’s a right, but I think it’s a privilege we abuse to the point that we may need to rethink that one; whatever we can do without dismantling the Bill of Rights and still get as many guns out of people’s hands as possible.