Poetry readings on Monday nights at the UT library are free, but they don’t always bring out big crowds. This coming Monday may be a little different. The featured poet in the Writers in the Library series is Steve Earle.
That Steve Earle. Bring up his name in any roadhouse on Clinton Highway, and there’s a good chance you’ll either get a free Budweiser longneck or a punch in the face. He’s one of the most loved and hated figures in American popular music. Once regarded as a rowdy working man’s hero, a small-town Texas outlaw with a mean guitar, he stands apart from other good ol’ boys in a couple of respects.
One is his politics; Earle is a self-described socialist. Another is the fact that he writes off-Broadway plays and, occasionally, poetry.
“I started writing poetry right after I got out of jail,” he says, “as something to do.” He’s on the phone somewhere in Nashville, and it sounds like he’s smoking some cigarettes. He’s friendly and open, as frank about his life as he is about his politics.
He first earned national success in the 1980s, with his albums Guitar Town and Copperhead Road ; his hard-driving songs about fury and loss brought inevitable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. To his fans, Steve Earle was Bruce Springsteen with a shotgun. Or Bruce Springsteen with a shotgun and a half-empty quart of moonshine. He became a hero for a generation of disaffected Southerners looking for someone younger than Johnny Cash, someone livelier than Waylon Jennings, someone smarter than Hank Jr. Though he never attended high school, Earle read a lot, and developed a reputation as country music’s intellectual.
Earle had some problems that those other performers would recognize. When he seemed to be at the top of his game, Earle was arrested in 1994 in Nashville after skipping a court date on a heroin charge. He did four months, and he stopped writing songs. Some assumed his career was over, as many performers’ careers are, before he hit 40.
“I didn’t write anything for four and a half years. After I got busted, and didn’t show up for a court appearance, and was a fugitive for a while, I didn’t write anything during that time.”
Earle says he began writing poetry after “talking to friends of mine, R.B. was one.” Knoxville songwriter R.B. Morris, the UT library’s writer in residence who organized this Monday’s event, was playing in Nashville a good deal, and the two developed a mutual respect.
Another influence was artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who organized some of the early poetry slams in Chicago during the 1980s.
“I wanted to start operating in areas where I wasn’t so comfortable,” Earle says. It may seem surprising that Earle found poetry challenging, especially to those who think of songs as poetry set to music.
“Gregory Corso used to get really pissed off when people refer to Bob Dylan as a poet, and I totally get it.” (Earle’s evocation of the Beat poet Corso offers a clue about his own style.) “It’s not the same thing. With music, you can use tonality; a minor chord can get you there.”
With poetry, he says, the writer has only words at his disposal. “Poetry is the hardest thing a writer can do,” he says.
“I wrote like probably about 30 poems during a year and a half. Then I wrote a haiku a day for a year.”
Meanwhile, Earle had also come screaming back as a rock’n’roll songwriter, with successful albums like 1997’s El Corazon.
Like a lot of people who’ve been to jail, Earle developed an aversion to the death penalty. In 1999, as Tennessee was about to execute its first death-row inmate in years, Earle toured the state with Morris—not singing, but reading poetry; they performed a two-night stand at the now-defunct Old City walkup, Bird’s Eye View. Some fans hardly recognized him. He was wearing glasses and had no guitar.
It was new to him then, but he’s done some more reading since. The toughest gigs, he says, are when he opens for, or follows, legendary rock ‘n’ roll poet Patti Smith. “There are not many people in the world I’m scared of,” Earle says. “We’re friends—and I’m terrified of her.”
He sees his music and poetry both as a sort of mission. “I think I reach people. I simply try to communicate these things I care about in language that a lot of people can understand. I do sign autographs after every show.... You’ve got to be hardcore, because it might be an hour or so before I come out, but I talk to people then. I lost count of the people who told me things I said changed the way they thought about something.”
He also began writing fiction, some of it autobiographical. In 2001, several of his short stories formed a collection, Doghouse Roses . Though most critics found it uneven, many saw evidence that the guy could write prose. Novelist Jay McInerney compared it to the work of Kerouac and Bukowski.
Along the way he wrote a play about the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the only woman to be executed in Texas. Called Karla , it played in Nashville in 2002, and ran off-Broadway in New York this past fall.
Though he takes no credit for it, he’s heartened by the slacking of U.S. executions in recent months. “Not just executions, death sentences are starting to slow down,” Earle says. “Prosecutors are starting to feel that some of that falls on them.
Noting the declining interest in the death penalty in opinion polls, he says, “It means the more people know about the death penalty, the less enthusiastic they are about it. But maybe now we’d just rather kill people in other countries.”
Earle’s 2002 album Jerusalem included a song called “John Walker’s Blues,” sung from the point of view of John Walker Lindh, the alienated California kid who joined the Taliban. It opens:
I’m just an American boy raised on MTV And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads But none of ‘em looked like me....
Earle’s song brought bitter protests from the mainstream Nashville music industry who preferred to think of Lindh as a traitor. At a show in the Midwest, he says, “one guy came up toward the stage during the Jerusalem tour intending to do me harm.” Earle took the complaints into consideration, and followed Jerusalem with an album perhaps more outrageous.
Roughly timed with the 2004 election, the album’s called The Revolution Starts...Now .
At turns thoughtful, funny and profane, it’s Earle’s most political album, most of which expresses contempt for the Bush administration, and especially for the Iraq war. One cut, “Warrior,” is entirely poetry, in a style reminiscent of the Beats, Earle reads it, backed by his band.
On tour, Earle pushed it a little farther with iconography; he’d always used a skull and crossbones as a personal logo; this time out, he superimposed the skull on a red hammer and sickle.
About a year ago, when he played his Knoxville show at the newly reopened Tennessee Theatre, the Bolshevik symbol projected above the band startled some people, even those who’d heard Earle call himself a Marxist.
He talks about it matter-of-factly. “First I had that as the design for my guitar pick. Then we put it on the drum sets. It actually started on the Jerusalem tour, but it worked for the Revolution theme.” Such a gesture would have been unheard of in the ’50s, and rare even in the ’60s and ’70s, during the Cold War, but he says he got little flak about it. “We made the hammer and sickle shirts. We started selling the shit out of them.”
Earle is perhaps not calling for armed insurrection. He thinks the working people who have kept Bush in office are not the ones who will benefit from his policies.
“We are kind of hillbillies,” he says of red-state Southerners. “We do limit ourselves. The factor that keeps Bush in office, people are able to identify with him. The simple old people who vote, they hear him fuck words up and embarrass himself, and they know he’s a regular guy.
“It’s like the Garth Brooks syndrome. One reason he was so big is that guys were the ones buying his stuff. And they thought, if a guy like that can get laid, so can I.”
Though there was some resistance to the Revolution tour—a group attempted a boycott of an Alaska fair where Steve Earle was scheduled to appear last June — his 160-city tour went without major incident.
“Most people have figured out that I’m not only Guitar Town and Copperhead Road anymore. But I am a socialist, always have been. Anybody who doesn’t think Copperhead Road is a political record—The first side is very political, post-Vietnam.... Side two is chick songs.”
A date at the Tennessee Theatre, early in the tour, nearly sold out, even at $40 a ticket. Earle’s pro-union exhortations from stage prompted some hooting, and a few erstwhile fans even walked out, but most stayed and cheered. To some it seemed almost as thrilling as being in Moscow in 1917.
The album rose on the charts. And earned Earle his first-ever Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Scholars of pop-music history believe it to be the first album with a chorus including the phrase, “Fuck the FCC” to earn that distinction.
It was a signal year for Earle. In August, he married his opening act, singer Allison Moorer. Around that time, he moved to New York and opened an off-Broadway production of his play, Karla .
“That’s why I moved to New York,” he says. “That’s the main reason. Tried running a theater company in Nashville. It’s hard. There are some really good actors here, but just about five of them.”
The limited engagement — New York’s equity rules limit the run of some low-budget shows to 16 performances, and the house only held 105 seats—drew mixed reviews.
Earle admits it wasn’t the only reason he moved. “Also, I’m sick of Baptists,” he says, after a half-century in the South. “I need to walk out and see a mixed-race, same-sex couple walking down the street holding hands. It makes me feel safer. I need to live in New York, where I don’t feel like an alien.”
His frequent trips to and from Nashville often bring him through Knoxville, in a car. “I’ve got a dog too big to fly with, a blue heeler.”
He has mixed feelings about the place. Knoxville is referenced in the title track of Copperhead Road , as a bootlegger’s destination. In the 1990s, Earle spent a lot of time in town doing pre-production work with one of his favorite bands, the V-Roys, whose albums his company produced. He mentions that he was here so often that some assumed he’d taken an apartment in Fort Sanders, where most of the band members lived.
“I’ll never forget when Paxton decided to try stage-diving” in a downtown nightclub, he says of V-Roys’ bassist Paxton Sellers. “Right in front of the stage, there were guys with beers in their hands. Some had two beers. They just sort of parted like the Red Sea. I saw this semicircle of people, the bass had dropped out. Paxton got up, recovered. Jeff Bills, being Jeff Bills, never recovered.” Bills was the V-Roys’ impressionable drummer.
“I don’t see them much anymore, because I don’t drink anymore, and don’t go to bars.” He says he sees Scott Miller occasionally in Nashville.
“Knoxville’s always kind of a litmus test,” he says. “Basically, if I’m going to alienate anybody, it’s going to be in Knoxville.” He remembers in particular a drunk yelling at him from the balcony when he appeared here with the bluegrass Del McCoury Band a few years ago.
“Knoxville’s kind of—probably because it’s so galvanized and isolated in a sea of orange, it probably has a much more hardcore bohemian tradition than any other city in Tennessee. It’s the Fort Sanders factor. That’s the people who seem to come to my shows.”
Some of those who did were a little discomfited by something Earle said from the stage.
“I remember that,” he says. “It was when we did ‘Christmas in Washington.’ The song, an homage to Woody Guthrie on El Corazon , evokes several leftist leaders, including Jesus. Earle tried to get the room to sing along, but got little cooperation. “I said, ‘Maybe the revolution will come a little late to Knoxville.’ I said that in some other places. It was a joke.”
Still, he says it worked in most of the cities on the tour. “If they didn’t know the words, they could have made something up.”
He says he wishes his work and his sentiments were more popular with the working class. Of the people who buy his records and come to his shows, he says, “They’re not redneck. Or they’re not redneck anymore . Or they aspire to be not redneck someday.”
He’s skeptical about the prospect of being over-identified with a region. “There’s no bigger a concept of Southern literature and Southern writers than there used to be Midwestern writers. Southern, Northern, Irish, they all have writers. Ireland is easier to figure out. They have so much theater, so many literate people. On Aer Lingus, the in-flight magazine has Seamus Heaney in it. But I’ve never been able to figure why Texas produces songwriters.”
In particular, he doesn’t see a problem with a Texan country icon becoming a leftist New York playwright and poet.
“Of course, it may be that I am retarded, and a hopeless hillbilly,” he allows. “Faulkner was an alcoholic, hopeless author who had to copy all those big words so people wouldn’t think he was a hillbilly.”
He sees no excuse for limitations. If it’s unusual for a New York playwright to have a rap sheet, it’s also unusual for one to learn to surf. If you happened to be in Australia recently, and thought you saw Steve Earle, but on a surfboard, maybe you did.
Surfing is something he’d told himself he would learn, at 50. “I finally got up, but I got the shit beat out of me in the process. It’s hard, man, hard on your legs. If I’d tried it 10 years ago, I would have done much better.”
He says he’s “trying not to tour until summer,” and admits he hasn’t been writing many new songs just recently, but he’s staying busy.
Lately, he’s been working on his wife’s new record, looking forward to a likely showing of Karla in Edinburgh—“There’s a really good chance to go to Edinburgh, put it up one more time,” he says.
He’s also working on adding one more persona to the Steve Earle legend, that of novelist. He’s working on an unusual work of fiction called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive .
“It’s about a doctor who’s a heroin addict in early ’60s San Antonio,” he says. “When he gets high, Hank shows up.” The apparition haunts the fictional doctor who, in the novel, had toured with Hank Williams and kept him fixed with drugs. (It’s another spiritual connection to Knoxville, where Williams allegedly received his fatal dose of morphine.)
Steve Earle’s the sort of guy who can talk about anything, and wants to, but he has to go run some errands while he’s in Nashville. Even Marxist playwrights have to go to Home Depot now and then. “I would rather be sexually assaulted by a farm animal than go to Home Depot,” he says. “But I have to.”
At least it’s not as offensive to him as Wal-Mart; he has barred his band members from shopping there. “Not only do they come in and kill every mom and pop business, but they don’t treat their workers well. They’re the most successful business in the United States. They can do much better by the people who work there than they do.”
But he makes time for one last question. Has he heard from the Secretary of State lately? The calypso love song, “Condi, Condi” is one of the poignant moments on The Revolution Starts...Now .”
“No, that bitch,” he says with a faux snort. “I know she loves me, though.”