Steve Earle, The Unquiet American

Steve Earle is no sucker. The left-of-left roots-rocker understands that this whole media mess – ask Dan Rather for more on that score – could be solved by giving the airwaves back to the people. But he also understands that capitalist countries like ours don’t give anything away for free. On one hand, he’s not alone in thinking that President Bush is a born-again fundamentalist hungry to lower God’s boom on the heathens of the world. But on the other hand, he also believes that the American people – not Bush, Cheney, Rove or anyone else – have everything in their power to stop the downward slide. “I don’t think the country is heading the direction that it is because of them,” the Nashville resident argues, “it’s because of us.”

Like I said. No sucker.

Check any newspaper, blog or TV show today and you’ll no doubt find some chattering pundit quickly blaming America’s ills on homosexuals, Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, Karl Rove, Britney Spears, Carrot Top – anybody but the American people themselves. Earle doesn’t afford us that luxury. The hard-earned gifts he has given himself over a rough-and-tumble existence marked by protest, addiction, art, divorce, jail time and working within genres traditionally populated by get-in-line necks like Toby Keith offer no condolences for the lazy. “Democracy is hard work,” the oft-nominated Grammy vet explains. “There will never be a time where we can just coast.”

Coasting is something Earle can’t afford to do, because his conscience won’t let him. Whether he’s sonically fomenting an American revolt on his latest release ‘The Revolution Starts…Now,’ co-founding the Broadaxe Theatre and fronting a self-penned play about Karla Faye Tucker, campaigning tirelessly with conscientious organizations hoping to get rid of the death penalty, torture, land mines and more, he understands as much as any visionary that staying active is the only way to stay involved. And even though some may ironically complain that his political songcraft – on earnest display in crunchy ‘Revolution’ tunes like “F the CC,” “Rich Man’s War,” “Condi Condi” and more – has no place in politics, they’re missing the point.

Which is this. Earle is an artist, first and foremost and, as he explains, “artists have always commented on the society around them.” Better get used to it.

Scott Thill: What are your thoughts on the way musicians are banding together now to help get out the vote?

Steve Earle: It’s obviously very welcome. I think non-partisan efforts are important, but I personally think that the more people that vote, the more likely things are to go my way. (Laughs). So I partisanly support non-partisan efforts. But musicians are people too. A lot of people who weren’t speaking up before are now, and I figured that would happen. Music does change things. I think it’s great.

What do you think of the assumption that art and politics should be separate, as if they ever were?

Yeah, they’ve never been separate. That’s a new idea dreamt up by John Ashcroft or somebody. In the first place, I’m not all that interested in what Britney Spears has to say about politics. But that being said, she has a right to say whatever she wants because she’s a citizen, and I’ll fight for her right to do that. But I ain’t Britney Spears: I make art, I write songs, I produce records, I’ve published a collection of short fiction and 15 or so articles and essays, written a play. I’m a real artist, and artists have always commented on the society around them. It’s our job! And it always has been.

I think in a way that Spears is indirectly commenting on the society around her without knowing it.

Well yeah, that can’t be helped. I mean, there’s art with a capital “A” and art with a lower-case one. Look, pop music does reflect what’s going on around us. Songs about girls have a political component too; there isn’t anything more political in the world than a personal relationship. But I write about what’s going on around me, and right now we’re in a politically charged atmosphere.

So what do you think about what’s going on around you? What do you think America will look like after this election?

I think Kerry’s going to win. All the polls are so close; no matter who the voters are swinging toward, it’s almost always within the margin of error. But I think he’s going to win, and I also think the margin is going to be wider than most believe. Now, I don’t know exactly why I think that, but it is the same part of me that very rarely gambles but almost always wins. I’m one of those guys that goes to Vegas or Reno to play once every two years and puts like $40 in a slot machine and wins $1800! (Laughs) Perhaps I should broaden my scope and look to try and win big but sparsely on online options at or those alike.

What do you think about a potential Kerry victory? Will the nation go to sleep after he wins, as it did after Clinton, as you’ve said before in interviews?

Yeah, and I think that Clinton is partly responsible for that, but that we are totally accountable for it. I don’t think the country is heading the direction that it is because of “them;” it’s because of “us.” We went to sleep. Democracy is really hard work, and there will never be a time where we can just coast. John Kerry is a lot more the type of a guy that I could vote for than Clinton. Bill Clinton was the only Republican I ever voted for!

Do you think America will keep on Kerry?

I think the real work starts the day after the election. I know I’m not going to sleep; I’ve got two draft-age sons! If Bush gets back into office, there’s going to be a draft by this time next year. There’s just no fucking way they can pursue this foreign policy without it. I believe that with all my heart. If Kerry wins, he’s going to be faced with trying to fix what we broke. I think he’ll open a dialogue with the rest of the world – which is the main reason I’m voting for him. But we’re going to have to hold him accountable. We’re going to have to let him know very quickly that we’re not willing to send our sons and daughters to die. And I think he knows that. I do think he’s too timid sometimes, but I know that John Kerry – from knowing a few people that know him and what I’ve been able to figure out about the guy so far – will try to get us out of Iraq. But I think that wanting to do that and being capable enough to do it – or even talking about it during an election year – are two different things. I just hope that the people who are sizing him up think about that.

How do you think our two-party system – which is looking like a one-party system more and more each year – has performed in this election year so far?

I think you’re absolutely right. The two-party system is the reason our democracy is so fragile. I’ve never been one to believe that America practices the purest form of democracy, simply because of our insistence on a two-party system that is not mandated by our Constitution. It’s not there; it’s not a law. It’s just the way it is, and it’s been that way for a long time. They have almost as bad a situation in Britain. But I think that a parliamentary form of government with diverse political parties that all have a real shot at holding seats in the coalition is a much more democratic system.

Let’s talk about the album. I think “Rich Man’s War” hits on the fact that so much of our current terrorism – in Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan – is motivated by poverty.

Yeah, they’re motivated by poverty on one hand, but on the other hand Yassir Arafat is one of the richest men in the Middle East. And I believe that the Palestinians have a right to a homeland as much as anyone else. Look, the fact is we support Israel, and when it gets right down to it, no one in the Middle East hates us for our freedom. It makes me ill when I hear that. They hate us for two reasons: We support the house of Saud, and we support Israel. Until we get rid of the taboo of simply talking about it, we’re not going anywhere. Criticizing our relationship with the Saudis is off the table because of the money, and the same goes for Israel – although there is also a little collective guilt involved over WWII that needs to be worked out. Look, I don’t have an anti-Zionist bone in my body, but we have got to be able to talk about these things. We’ve come close a couple of times, but we still need to add more leaders in that area. Just imagine what the world would be like now had Anwar Sadat survived. Until we solve the problem in Palestine, we’ll have problems – and I believe in taking the hardest problem and solving it first. If we could sort that out, the rest of the problems in that region would get worked out eventually.

Yeah, I think that if we truly put our hearts into it, the rest of the world would come back to us.

Absolutely. Look, I’m a recovering addict – I don’t believe in accidents. I believe that when a tiny place halfway around the world keeps demanding our time and attention over and over again, then it’s because we didn’t do something right. We’ve been turning back to Jerusalem again and again. I mean, these three major faiths – Christian, Muslim, Jewish – all worship the same god, not a different one.

Isn’t that the elephant in global terrorism’s room? Why haven’t we interrogated this thing in religious terms over the last four years?

Well, it is a religious conflict, but I believe in my heart that all wars are fought over money. Even holy wars. But in this case – and keep in mind that this is a guerilla war fought by jihadists from all over the world – I think our president knows it and is OK with it. He’s a fundamentalist that believes he can defeat fundamentalism – and that scares the living fuck out of me.

That’s what I’m trying to say. You’ve got religious fundamentalists who are – for whatever reasons: money, religion and onward – not afraid to die in the name of God, and actually would rather take a bunch of people with them when they go.

Right, and we don’t get that part. And the sad thing is that we are creating more fundamentalists with every move we make.

Your new album turns on the idea of revolution, but how do you think that concept has evolved – or devolved – in the era of media consolidation? I mean, you had around 70 percent of the country thinking that Saddam was involved with the Al Qaeda-led attacks on 9/11 only a few months back.

Media consolidation directly affects not only the quality of art that we get, but also the quality of information that we get as well. There’s no doubt about it. It’s going to take America awhile to realize that. I mean, look at campaign finance laws; we wouldn’t need them if we weren’t so protective of corporate-owned media in this country. So it’s really simple: Give away the fucking airtime! That would immediately level the playing field. Because it’s all about television now, and has been ever since the Kennedy campaign; think Richard Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow. Television is the main tool used by all American political campaigns. If you give away the airtime, then no one will complain that they didn’t get enough coverage and that the other guy has the upper hand. But there’s too much money involved, and people that own some of these companies are getting fucking rich off of the electoral process. And a lot of this money is ours! There’s an enormous amount of tax dollars involved.

“Fuck the FCC,” as you say on the album. Are you worried about that bureaucratic juggernaut? Can we turn the FCC around?

Oh yeah. It has been turned around. I trust our Constitution to work – eventually. I mean, it’s being heavily assaulted right now. But when FCC regulations were allowing corporate entities to own any number of television or radio stations – even newspapers – in the same market, in direct contradiction to the rules that had stood against that process for a very long time, we as a people immediately understood that in a country with no state-owned media, it was crucial that the airwaves remained in the hands of the people. And that the FCC was created only to regulate those airwaves for the people. In fact, they’re one of the only things left in this country that truly does belong to the American people. So a federal court stopped that process before it could get out of hand. At this point, Clear Channel can’t own everything.

But the idea of giving anything away – especially airtime – is anathema to capitalism, and those who get rich off of it.

Yeah, it’s just one of those things. The idea that the market will take care of anyone not heavily invested in it is incredibly naïve. Well, it’s a naïve belief for those under its thumb, but a lie for those who capitalize on it. Capitalism is OK as an economic system, but it makes a lousy religion.

This interview appeared in AlterNet