Steve Earle: ‘It’s Very Dangerous To Be Ignorant Of Islam’

Amid the increasingly incendiary debate over Islam in America, here’s a look back at a related interview I conducted with Steve Earle in 2004. In the article, now online for the first time, he admitted his previous ignorance about the religion and stressed the importance of understanding it, particularly in the wake of 9/11. He also criticized then-President George W. Bush – but admitted that Condoleeza Rice was “kinda hot.”

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Steve Earle has done it all. He released a landmark album at the onset of his career with 1986’s Guitar Town. He torn down the dividing wall between country and rock just as Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams did. And he has carried the cross of controversy most credible artists have had to bear at one time or another – most notably, the 2002 outcry that greeted “John Walker’s Blues,” a testimony to American Taliban John Walker Lindh.

On top of it all, Earle has endured heroin addiction – including three years in jail because of it – and undergone multiple divorces. (On the positive side, it can be noted that Earle has dropped 60 pounds in less than a year.)

Earle really only began engaging in political dialogue with 2002’s Jerusalem, which featured the aforementioned “John Walker’s Blues.” But he developed a streak with last year’s Just an American Boy concert CD and DVD, which were rife with anti-authoritarian banter. The rebel recently wrote a play called “Karia” that focuses on Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. Additionally, he has involved himself with a spate of nonprofit organizations, including Amnesty International.

Not surprisingly, Earle’s 13th studio release, The Revolution Starts … Now, is a politically incendiary album and, in some respects, begins where Jerusalem left off.

Earle, who turns 50 next January, tells ICE, “The last record was about post-9/11 for me, and how ignorant I was of Islam. I think it’s very dangerous to be ignorant of Islam at this point. This record’s about the war. So it’s a continuation in one sense, but there are two different things going on. George W. Bush probably sees more of a relationship between my last record and this one than most people do, because he sees the relationship between 9/11 and Iraq. I don’t.

“This album is about the idea that we’re living in a really critical time in this country and the world’s history, and that everything we do right now counts. Probably more than it ever has.”

The complete song list to the fiery CD, out August 24 on Artemis: “The Revolution Stars …,” “Home to Houston,” “Rich Man’s War,” “Warrior,” “The Gringo’s Tale,” “Condi, Condi,” “F the CC,” “Comin’ Around” (with Emmylou Harris), “I Thought You Should Know,” “The Seeker” and “The Revolution Starts Now.”

He recorded The Revolution with partner Ray Kennedy at their jointly owned Room & Board studio located in Hermitage, Tennessee, with his backing band, the Dukes, and a string quartet. They also produced the effort under the peculiar alias thetwangtwist.

Earle debuted many of these tunes on tour last year with the Dukes (including younger brother and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Earle). “The Revolution Starts Now” and “Rich Man’s War” were the first two songs he scribed, in September-October of last year, and were developed further during soundchecks.

“With many of the others,” Earle says, “some part of every song was written the day it was recorded. Three songs were written entirely the morning we recorded, including ‘Condi, Condi’ and ‘The Gringo’s Tale.’ With the Emmy duet, I woke up with a blank piece of paper and recorded it that night. It’s a Creedence [Clearwater Revival] record, basically, the way it was recorded.”

“Comin’ Around,” the Harris duet, is the least political track on the CD by a long shot and will resurface later this year on the soundtrack to “An Unfinished Life” (starring Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez).

“Rich Man’s War” is a song that “I’m pretty proud of,” Earle continues. “When I play that song, the reaction of the audiences to the first verse is pretty astounding. I’m proud of the words, and I actually think it’s kind of pretty.”

The verse: “Jimmy joined the Army ‘cause he had no place to go/ There ain’t nobody hirin’ ‘round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico/ Reckoned that he’d learn himself a trade, maybe see the world/ Move to the city someday and marry a black-haired girl/ Somebody somewhere had another plan/ Now he’s got a rifle in his hand/ Rollin’ into Baghdad wonderin’ how he got this far/ Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war.”

Another track beckons a bit of lyrical revelation, that being “Condi, Condi” (obviously a reference to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice): “Oh Condi, Condi, beggin’ on my knees/ Open up your heart and let me in wontcha please … Sweet and dandy pretty as can be/ You be the flower, and I’ll be the bumble bee/ Oh she loves me, oops she loves me not/ People say you’re cold, but I think you’re not.”

It’s a bit unexpected to find Earle on bended knee in front of a Republican on such an anti-establishment CD, but, as he wryly quips, “Well, don’t you think she’s kind of hot?”

Despite appearances, Revolution is not a completely political album. “Warrior” is a spoken-word song, many of the stanzas of which Earle lifted from the Kenneth Branagh film “Henry V,” while “The Seeker,” in Earle’s words, “is the obligatory state-of-me song that I end up with on every record – me taking a picture of where I am.

“It’s more spiritual than anything else. Me trying to remind myself that I’m still and I’m still functioning. And asking myself, ‘Why?’ To me, the enemy is cynicism more than anything else. I’ve survived being a heroin addict, not a particularly good father and failing in marriages, but I don’t think I could ever survive becoming cynical.”

The closing stanza to that song: “In a world full of sorrow, hunger and pain/ It’s so hard to explain why I’m still travelin’/ But there’s a new day tomorrow, and maybe I’ll hold/ Something brighter than gold to a seeker.”

Nary a track was left off Revolution, and the erudite Earle despises alternate versions, so fans and collectors shouldn’t expect many outtakes or import bonuses. He did, however, make a last-minute addition to Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo – the subject of our cover story last month – with a rocking version of “Paradise.”

Originally published as the cover story of ICE magazine #209, August 2004.

If you liked this interview, check out:

• “The Magic Wanda Jackson
• “Patti Smith On Jamming With Jeff Buckley And Tom Verlaine: ‘It Was Beautiful’
• “Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik Feels Your Pain

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