With his combination of Nashville roots and leftist politics, Steve Earle would have been the perfect person to play the “Defend Johnny Cash” protest during the Republican convention last month. (He did perform at the Sept. 1 labor rally.) How many other country singers have ever mentioned Emma Goldman in a song?
Earle, 49, grew up in Texas, the son of one of the air-traffic controllers fired by Ronald Reagan in 1981. He established himself as a countryrocker in the mid-’80s, working the musical territory between bluegrass and Stonesy hard rock, scoring a hit in 1988 with the redneck pot-growing tale “Copperhead Road” and agitating against the death penalty. He fell deep into heroin and eventually served four months in jail.
He revived in the mid-’90s more musically prolific and politically committed. Since then, he’s released albums almost annually, including songs like “I Feel Alright,” a rowdy I’m-back garage-rocker; “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain,” a depths-of depression drone; and “Christmas in Washington,” a political lament over an acoustic guitar track as sparse as a Pennsylvania landscape in winter. Last year’s Jerusalem attracted far right sniping for
“John Walker’s Blues,” in which Earle sang from the point of view of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.
Earle’s latest album, The Revolution Starts… Now, is his most intentionally political album yet. “We desperately wanted to weigh in, both as artists and as citizens of a democracy,” he says in the liner notes. “In times like these voting alone simply isn’t enough.” It’s also one of his most solid records; his voice is croakier than ever, and the band – guitarist Eric Ambel, bassist Kelly Looney, and drummer Will Rigby – kicks at the perfect equilibrium between loose and tight. Four tracks relate to the Iraq war, from semiacoustic story songs about “poor boys off to fight in a rich man’s war” to the apocalyptic, metallic military-beatnik poem “Warrior.” “F the CC,” the loudest rocker, rails against corporate radio. It’s easy to imagine a hall full of people shouting the chorus, “So fuck the FCC/Fuck the FBI/Fuck the CIA/Livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA.” It’s also easy to imagine Earle getting 86ed from Clear Channel venues for playing it.
There are a couple misses. “Condi, Condi” is a funny calypso flavored tune, but The Boondocks comic strip did the “give Condoleezza Rice a love life” theme better. The two love songs, one a breakup duet with Emmylou Harris, feel out of place, or at least they don’t reach my heart the way “I Remember You” on Jerusalem did.
The title track, a surging, anthemic two-chord groove with ring-of-fire guitars, is the absolute high point. It perfectly captures the moment when you realize change is possible if you commit to it.
The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around
The revolution starts here
This could be as good a song as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and it rocks a lot harder. I want to play it for all the coworkers I’ve had who are scared to even think the word “union.” I wonder what it will sound like in ten years if we don’t have a revolution.
– Steve Wishnia
Illustration: Liz Tillotson