The Revolution Starts Now

The songwriting icon is working to get every ounce of horsepower that he can out of American democracy.

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Steve Earle is a busy man.

Last month, the eight-time Grammy nominee released The Revolution Starts Now, a politically charged and musically compelling album that takes aim at the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. In one of the tracks, “Rich Man’s War,” Earle sings about three men used as political pawns; in “F the CC” he thumbs his nose at media censorship, and in “Condi, Condi,” he serenades the national security advisor.

He’s also hosting a weekly radio show on the Air America network, discussing music and politics with his guests. This week, in Nashville, Earle kicks off a tour that focuses primarily on swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio before wrapping up at New York’s CBGB on the eve of the election.

Along the way, the self-described “lefty redneck” hopes to do his part mobilizing voters to can George Bush. “I don’t like the way the country’s been going for most of my life,” Earlie explains. “We were headed in a different direction in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that proved that it can happen and that we can move toward a society that’s more compassionate. Your options as a lefty are: move; or be content to work your ass off for the rest of your life to get every ounce of horsepower that you can get out of this democracy.”

Earle has been doing just that for years, agitating against the death penalty, playing benefits for an anti-landmine campaign, and touring with Farm Aid. With his last album, Jerusalem, Earle looked at American attitudes toward the Middle East — and angered some on the right with “John Walker’s Blues,” an empathetic look at the experience of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. With Revolution, Earle delivers his most directly political album to date, and he shared his thoughts about it with Your music has covered political themes for years now, but the last two albums have been more overtly political. What prompted that shift?

Steve Earle: I wasn’t raised to not write about issues, and I’m just living in really politically charged times. You know, I’d rather write songs about girls, but it’s just hard to do right now. My main area of activism is the death penalty, and it will continue to be once this crisis is over with, however it resolves itself. But I don’t think any of us could have possibly imagined how much damage would be done in the last four years — not even the most anti-Bush person out there. You know, I thought, “Well this sucks. But we survived his dad, we’ll survive him.” And I was wrong. I was just completely and totally wrong. Now I fear that what we’ve got is a fundamentalist who’s decided to take on fundamentalism and actually thinks he can win. And that scares the hell out of me. When did you get the idea for this album, and what do you hope it achieves?

SE: I wrote “Rich Man’s War” in Australia in April, and “The Revolution Starts Now” around the same time. What songwriting does better than almost anything is empathy — it’s incredibly empathetic. The reason people sat around in bars when they were bummed out and listened to country songs is because it made them feel better in the long run. You know, when you’re really bummed out, the last thing you want to hear is up-tempo and positive. And it lets you know that you’re not alone, that somebody has hurt before. It works the same way with chick songs as it does with political songs. When you hear somebody singing about these things, you know that you’re not alone, that somebody else out there is suspicious of what’s going on around us in the world. So you don’t feel like you’re crazy, and you feel like you might be able to make a difference. Have you heard anything from Condoleezza Rice about the song you wrote about her?

SE: No. The New York Daily News ran a column item on it, when the first advance copies of the record came out. They called the White House, and the end of article says something like, “A spokeswoman for Ms. Rice, herself a classical pianist, said ‘I don’t believe we’ll be commenting on that.’” But I think she digs me, and she’s just playing hard to get. How has the reaction been to the new album?

SE: It’s been amazing. One of the reasons I have an Air America radio show is that Danny Goldberg [of Artemis Records, Earle’s label] and I were trying to figure out any alternative way we could come up with to sell records because Jerusalem was tough to get on the radio. It did O.K. It did what my records sort of do, about 100,000 records. But this record was easier to get on the radio than any I’ve had out in the last ten years. And the reviews have been incredibly positive. I mean, we had the usual unintelligible review from the Village Voice. I still can’t figure their reviews out; I think they hate me, but I’m not sure. And one from The Guardian that was really sort of Ashcroft-esque, talking about whether pop music and politics should ever be combined ever for any reason, which is just one of those things. But overall, reviews have been really, really good. And I think the difference between the reception to this record and the reception to Jerusalem is that people are waking up. Besides the Air America show, what are some other things you’re doing to get your music and message out?

SE: I’m just more plugged in. I’m blogging a little bit more. It’s kind of a cool medium because you run across stuff, just traveling around on the “Silver City” junket with John Sayles, and then the tour’s going to start. So it’s really just all of us trying to keep each other’s spirits up, because this is not over. It’s not even close to over, and this election’s going to be close. There’s not a single move that this administration has made that’s done anything but make it more dangerous to be an American anywhere in the world.

As far as Kerry, you know, I voted for Bill Clinton twice, the only Republican I ever voted for. And Kerry is much more somebody I can get behind than Bill Clinton was. Everybody needs to remember that. It’s hard to judge a senator by his record because of the way the Senate works, but he’s a real live liberal. He’s on the moderate side of that, yes, but he’s much more than Clinton. And that being said, I’m not a Democrat; I’m something well to the left of a Democrat, but I’m just realistic about the system. Where do you think that system’s headed?

SE: What we’ve got going on right now, is this democracy is collapsing. It’s already a weak democracy because of our insistence on a two-party system that’s not mandated anywhere in our Constitution. And right now, we’ve got liberals who are afraid of identifying themselves as liberals, and we have conservatives who don’t have the balls to say, “These guys are not conservatives.” You know, I can deal with conservatives in a democracy. With real conservatives, I don’t agree with them, but I understand why they believe what they believe and I believe they’re being honest with me about it. But that’s not what these guys are. They really do believe that the end justifies any means because they’re completely and totally convinced that they’re smarter than we are, they know better than we do. And democracy’s like window dressing to them.

That’s where I think Kerry’s biggest mistake right now is he’s really trying to compete with the Republicans for all those votes in the middle. And I don’t think those votes are what’s going to decide the election. I think enough of those votes in the middle are going to go to Kerry anyway. I think the votes on the left, what I’m scared of, is lefties staying home or getting pissed off and voting for Nader. I never drank the Nader Kool-Aid. I don’t like Ralph Nader as a candidate, nothing against him personally. But he basically, to me, is just as addicted to being right as George W. Bush is, in his own way. How do you mobilize people who aren’t engaged politically?

SE: It’s tough. So the way you have to communicate with them is like, “Look guys, it’s your kids that are going. It’s not their kids, it’s your kids.” And, you know, the most profound thing in “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the whole idea that in these depressed areas, there’s no incentive for this administration to help those areas out because they need those kids to be out of work. They need them to join the fucking army. These people that have died in Iraq, there’s so many reservists that it’s ridiculous. We’re sending so many reservists over, and we’re getting a huge amount of reservists killed. Those guys didn’t bargain for that. And the number wounded, that’s the frightening thing, and how severe those wounds are. The body armor’s so good that, yes, the casualties are low. But I think we’re up over 8,000 now that are reported wounded and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of traumatic brain injuries and blindness among those people who are being hurt. You mentioned Bush needing these depressed areas to provide troops. Having toured around the country, do you have a sense of why he seems to draw support from areas his policies have hurt?

SE: What I’m seeing out there and what you see on CNN are two different things. I think that there are definitely more undecided voters out there. That’s not necessarily a plus for the way I want things to go –- I’m like, what the hell is there to be undecided about? But that means that the fear tactics are working. I was in New York through the whole convention, and that was their platform. Their platform is that hole in the ground down there. That’s it. That’s why they had the convention in New York –- it’s the only reason for having it there.

But, you know, we’ve had a long period of conservatives successfully separating working people from their political identity. It goes back to the Vietnam war, hard hats attacking kids who were demonstrating against the draft, and not thinking about how it was their kids that were gonna go. It didn’t become a mainstream issue until middle-class people’s kids started getting drafted, because they didn’t qualify for a deferment or whatever. There’s this whole post-New Deal adjustment that’s been going on this country. Lefties have to take some of the responsibility for it – you can’t go spouting political theory at working people. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to understand it, but they’re the people who are actually out there affected by all these things and they simply don’t have time to sit around with you in a coffeehouse and discuss it on a theoretical level. We’ve got to figure out how to show people that it doesn’t behoove them to sit around and wait for things to trickle down or whatever. How important is Air America to that process?

SE: I think Air America starts the process, but we are preaching to the choir to a certain extent. It’s actually going pretty well. But it’s really now more of an indicator of the number of disenfranchised people that think more like I do — we’re a ways away from convincing people that are being laid off from their jobs and their jobs are going away forever that it behooves them to support a labor movement. You know, to care about what happens to the next generation and care what happens to workers in other places than where they live. I think one factor is, these are not just blue-collar jobs we’re losing. There are people with college educations, who have had money and maybe even have a little money in the bank, who are losing jobs too. This outsourcing thing’s gotten so out of hand. And I think that may be one of the places to organize right there. So lefties have got to communicate with working people. That’s job one. And I think Air America can be part of that. I think it depends on the show and who’s talking. Air America, mainly, can eventually prove that there’s more than one viewpoint to cater to out there, and democratize what we hear in the media just by its survival.


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