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“Making Art in America is a Political Statement in Itself”: Grammy Award-winning Singer Steve Earle on Music, Writing and Acting

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Singer-songwriter, actor and author Steve Earle joins us in the studio to talk about his art and perform two songs from his new album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. He is being awarded an honorary degree today from the City University of New York School of Law. Last year, he was honored by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for his years of involvement with the anti-death penalty movement. “Making art in America is sort of a political statement in and of itself,” Earle says. “I don’t think I’m a political songwriter as much as I am just a political person.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 27, 2004The Revolution Starts Now: Steve Earle on the Republican Convention, the Death Penalty and the GOP Hijacking of Johnny Cash
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For the rest of the hour, we’re joined by the singer-songwriter, actor and author Steve Earle. As a musician, he’s a three-time Grammy Award winner for the albums The Revolution Starts Now, Washington Square Serenade and Townes. As an actor, he has recently appeared in the acclaimed HBO series The Wire and Treme.

Steve Earle is also one of the most high-profile progressive activists of the music world. Last year he was awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star of Abolition Award for his years of involvement with the anti-death penalty movement. He is also known for his outspoken antiwar views and, in 2004, drew controversy for a song about the U.S.-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

Steve Earle has just come out with both a new album and his first novel. They share the same title: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Steve Earle joins us now in our studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steve.

STEVE EARLE: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Tell us about the song we were just listening to, “Gulf of Mexico.”

STEVE EARLE: “Gulf of Mexico.” I’m in Treme, David Simon’s post-Katrina New Orleans series. And we were at the end of filming it last year, and, you know, we felt like we were doing something good for New Orleans. And we were. You know, we were employing people and telling everybody’s story, and a lot of local people felt like we were telling it accurately, which they don’t often feel that way. And there were oysters as big as your fist, and things were pretty optimistic. And then, all of a sudden, the spill happened. And, you know, gallons and gallons and gallons of crude oil kept dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. And it was just like, what more can these people — what more do they got to walk through?

And I think it’s really interesting that people in Louisiana receive not a dime from royalties from the oil companies. That’s the only state on our coast that that’s the truth. When they do drill offshore in Louisiana, that no one receives — in the state, receives a dime. And it’s just because of deals that were made by former governors with the oil companies a long time ago. So it’s — most people in the region believe that there is a lot more jobs in the oil industry than there actually are. A lot of the jobs go to people from outside of Louisiana. And I think it’s — a lot it’s about hope. It’s just about — they know those high-paying jobs are out there, and they like the idea that they’re there, but I think maybe people are misinformed about how many there actually are. But it’s part of the deal. It’s part of the culture there.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re wearing a suit, Steve. I’m not used to seeing you in a suit and tie.

STEVE EARLE: I have suits. That’s one of those things. I wear them seldom. That’s one good thing about my job.

AMY GOODMAN: With your guitar, it’s quite a combo here.

STEVE EARLE: It is strange to have folk singers in suits. You haven’t seen this since the late '50s. I am going to accept an honorary degree at CUNY Law this afternoon, and — which is — I mean, for somebody with literally an eighth grade education, it's kind of a big deal. My mother is thrilled. But it was kind of up in the air until just a few days ago, because Tony — you know, Jay, which is part of the same —- really the same university -—

AMY GOODMAN: John Jay College for Criminal Justice.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah —- decided that they were going to rescind a -—

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, the CUNY board decided.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah. And really, when it gets right down to it, when you do the work, it was kind of one guy on the CUNY board, really, was at the bottom of it all, decided that Tony Kushner was — they had offered the same, you know, a similar honor to Tony Kushner, who — it’s like, for me, I moved to New York City personally to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner, so there was no way that I could accept this until they reinstated him, which actually happened Monday. And I haven’t heard whether —- what his intentions are now, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he was on here on Tuesday, and he said he will be going to get his degree.

STEVE EARLE: Well, that’s great. I’m glad to hear that. But once I felt OK about going and doing it, and my mother will be thrilled, so…

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Steve, we have a some time. Talk a little bit about what drew you to music. You grew up in San Antonio?


JUAN GONZALEZ: How did San Antonio affect your view of the world?

STEVE EARLE: Well, San Antonio is like a military town. It’s like literally — when I was growing up there, there were five Air Force bases, plus Fort Sam Houston. I was always sort of near the military. My father was a government employee, was an air traffic controller. And, you know, I just grew up in a military, you know, city during the Vietnam War. I don’t remember that war not being on television. And before it was over with, I was old enough to be drafted. So it was like — I mean, anybody — I’m 56. Anybody my age, it’s a huge part of who we are, my age and older, you know? My lottery was the first one that didn’t happen.

So, I also played music pretty young, so that meant I could get into coffeehouses. I couldn’t get into bars to play, and coffeehouses were — there were only a couple in San Antonio, and one of them was at Fort Sam Houston and was started by the GIs there. And one of the earliest chapters of Vietnam Veterans Against the War was founded there and another coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, called Oleo Strut. And those guys, you know, they were all — they weren’t that much older than I was. And they were going away to Vietnam, and some of them didn’t come back. And I had friends that went and didn’t come back, and I had some come back that didn’t come back. And it was just a huge part of who we were in my generation.

And I think, you know, my father did have to eventually answer for me, on a flatbed trailer in front of the Alamo singing “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” when I was about 15 years old. And he — you know, he was a government employee. He heard about it at work, when I turned up on the 6:00 news.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So you started heading — making your way toward New York, but got waylaid to other places?

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, Nashville, Tennessee. I just ended up in Nashville for 33 years. And then I just — six years ago, I decided that I belonged in New York City, after I had spent a lot of time here over the years. And it began with — I rented an apartment for three months just to have a base to harass Republicans from during the Republican National Convention, when they chose to have their convention in New York City. And then I just sort of fell in love. And then I really fell in love with Allison Moorer, and we got married. And we decided we needed a city where neither of us had any history, and we moved to New York six years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have a song on this album, on your latest that’s just being released this week, called “This City.” It’s not about New York City.

STEVE EARLE: No, it’s about New Orleans, which is like —- the coolest thing about Treme, this television show I’m involved in now, is that I get to go -—

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get involved with acting?

STEVE EARLE: I was — David Simon, who created The Wire and co-created Treme, was a music fan and a fan of my music, and he called with this character he created that he thought I might be able to play. And it was a redneck recovering addict, so it required no acting. And so, I thought I could give it a try. And I was in The Wire, off and on, the entire time it was on, like whenever Bubbles, who was a major character, decided he was going to try to get clean, then they resurrected my character, Walon, who was basically Bubbles’ sponsor.

In this show, I play me, if I’d never been lucky enough to get a record deal. It’s like I basically play a street performer, a non-traditional busker in New Orleans. Royal Street is kind of where that — traditionally where non-traditional singers, people that aren’t playing traditional jazz, play. And David Simon came back to the set one night, and he asked me if I could write a song that my character would have written in '05 immediately following Hurricane Katrina. So this is the latest in a long line of second chances that I've gotten in my life.

[singing “This City”] This city won’t wash away
This city won’t ever drown
Blood in the water and hell to pay
Sky tear open and pain rain down
Doesn’t matter ’cause come what may
I ain’t ever gonna to leave this town
This city won’t wash away
This city won’t ever drown

Ain’t the river or the wind to blame
As everybody around here knows
Nothin’ holdin’ back Pontchartrain
Except for a prayer and a promise’s ghost
We just carry on diggin’ our graves
In solid marble above the ground
Maybe our bones’ll wash away
But this city won’t ever drown

This city won’t ever die
Just as long as her heart beats strong
Like a second line steppin’ high
Raisin’ hell as we roll along
Gentilly to the Vieux Carré
Lower Nine, Central City, Uptown
Singin’ Jacamo Fee-Nah-Nay
This city won’t ever drown
Doesn’t matter ’cause there ain’t no way
I’m ever gonna leave this town
This city won’t wash away
This city won’t ever drown.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, “This City,” from your new CD, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Steve, you were just talking about addiction. How did you beat addiction? You’ve been struggling with this all your life.

STEVE EARLE: Oh, I haven’t beaten it. I’m just — I am a recovering addict, not a recovered one. I still — it’s pretty simple. There are some rules and regulations, or traditions anyway, about what you can say and what you can’t say in a setting like this, but I will say that it’s 12-step programs. It’s really —- I still basically, after 16 years, I go to meetings, and I call my sponsor, and I try to work steps. And that’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: You were addicted to heroin?

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, heroin and cocaine and alcohol. But heroin was my drug of choice.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, now you’re acting. You’re putting out CDs and DVDs. A DVD comes with the CD about sort of the behind-the-scenes making of this.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, we — one of the coolest things about this, I was planning on making a record with T Bone Burnett, by the time we recorded “This City” and — but we had to have “This City” ready for the last episode of Treme last year, which means — like, you can only film up until the end of May in New Orleans and get insurance, anyway, because it’s hurricane season. So Treme has to wrap by the end of May. And soon as we finished with the series, we went into the studio.

And I called T Bone and said, “Well, we have to — you know, we need to record this in New Orleans with New Orleans musicians, or we’re going to go to Hell.” And he said, “Well, then we should call Allen Toussaint to write the horn chart.” And Allen did. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my musical career, no doubt about it. Allen was direct — had come directly from the Gulf Aid concert, because we recorded it on that Sunday, and he literally pulled up in front of Piety Studios in his Rolls, which he drives — that’s the car he’s driven since the ’70s — and folded his dinner jacket, put it in the trunk, took out his arrangements, put them out on the stands. And 45 minutes later, we were recording. It was pretty amazing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, I mean, so many of your songs and the lyrics are politically — have an enormous political message. But you also, on this album, have some love songs, as well.

STEVE EARLE: Well, no, I mean, when I die, they’ll figure out that I probably wrote more songs about girls than I did about anything else. I mean, I don’t think I’m a political songwriter as much as I am just a political person. I think it’s in my fabric. So it just never occurred to me that music wasn’t political. I mean, making art in America is sort of a political statement in and of itself. It’s not the best environment for that sometimes. But this is like — yeah, I wrote — you’ve got to write chick songs, because otherwise your audience becomes exponentially harrier and uglier as time goes on, I’ve discovered over the years. I’ve been doing this a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: So give me “Every Part of Me.”

STEVE EARLE: Well, God, this is going to be — I have to retune the guitar to do that. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’ll remind people as you’re doing that — I hope that my voice doesn’t get in the way of your tuning — but that you are watching, listening to Democracy Now!, and we’re talking to Steve Earle, the three-time Grammy Award winner. He’s a musician and actor, an author, an activist. And he’s just come out with a new album and a novel by the same name, which is I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And we’re going to talk about the novel in a moment and also about his death penalty activism. Steve, I can’t think of anything else to say, so you’re going to have to finish.

STEVE EARLE: I know. I’m tuning as fast as I can. So this is the folk singer thing. You talk and tune, which means you’re not doing all that great a good job of talking and all that great a job of tuning. That was pretty — I actually just impressed myself. I did that faster than I thought I could. Allison Moorer and I have been married for six years, and the entire time we’ve been together, we have toured together, and which meant that I’ve done the other — I’ve done the other — done it the other way, been married and been gone a lot, and it’s — makes it virtually impossible to sustain any kind of relationship. And so, we’ve stayed — we’ve toured together, been lucky enough to be able to do that, until — we have a year-old son now, and — which meant when Townes was out, that I had to do that tour by myself. So…

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your baby’s name?

STEVE EARLE: John Henry, as in — a friend of mine said, “You named him John Henry?” He said, “After the song?” And I said — it was actually David Corn. He said — and I said, “Yeah.” So, like, he said, “But in the song, he dies, right?” And I said, “Yeah, but he dies with his hammer in his hand.” He goes, “Yeah, but he dies.” And I said, “With his hammer in his hand.” Perfectly good — perfectly good name for a folk singer’s kid, I think. Almost there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is just proving to people that this is live radio and television.


AMY GOODMAN: This is a live broadcast.

STEVE EARLE: And this is what happens when you’re lonesome in the wilds of East Anglia, because Allison was a little bit too pregnant to tour by the time the Townes tour came along. And I discovered I wasn’t used to it anymore. Sorry.

[singing “Every Part of Me”] I love you with all my heart
All my soul, every part of me
It’s all I can do to mark
Where you start and where I end, you see
I’ve labored long in my travails
And left a trail of tears behind me
Been in love so many times
Didn’t think this kind would ever find me

I love you with everything
All my weakness, all my strength
I can’t promise anything
Except that my last my breath will bear your name
And when I’m gone they’ll sing a song
About a lonely fool who wandered
Around the world and back again
But in the end he finally found her
I love you with all my heart
All my soul, every part of me

Across the universe I’ll spin
Until the end and then I wonder
If we should get another chance
Could I have that dance forever under
Double moon and scarlet stars
_Shining down on where you are _
I’ll love you with all my heart
All my soul, every part of me.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, from his new CD, “Every Part of Me.” The CD is called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Steve, we only have, well, less than a minute, though we’re going to continue after the show, we’ll post it online and play it next week on Democracy Now! The death of your dad, dealing with it?

STEVE EARLE: Well, I mean, my dad died three years ago. I was producing a record on Joan Baez at the time. And Joan showed up, you know, with eight songs. And I brought some songs. She said, “I don’t want to learn any of those. I’ve learned all these songs.” And I said, “Eight’s not enough for a record.” And she said, “Well, no, I want you to write the rest of them.” And we were recording in Tennessee. My dad lived in Tennessee. And he was in and out of the hospital two or three times. And then, right after we finished recording basic tracks for the record, we lost him. And it was tough. It was tough for my family.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got 10 seconds in this segment of the show.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, and it was —- it was just one of those things. When the generation before you passes on, you realize you’re next. And it had a lot to do with this book that I’ve written and this record. And [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about the book as well as more about the CD in the second part of our interview. We’re going to post it at democracynow.org. Steve Earle, musician, actor, author and activist, thanks for being with us.

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The Revolution Starts Now: Steve Earle on the Republican Convention, the Death Penalty and the GOP Hijacking of Johnny Cash

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