Life in the Earle-y 21st century

Few records prove themselves so immediately indispensable as Steve Earle’s El Corazon.

Throughout that classic 1997 album — which travels effortlessly from finger-picked ballads to bluegrass romps, old-style-country love songs and Nirvana-loud rock anthems — Earle’s songwriting is consistently impressive and memorable, not only for his guitar and mandolin work, but for the instant-legend lyrics delivered in the musician’s subtly slurred growl.

His most recent release, Jerusalem (E-Squared/Artemis, 2002), evinces the same urgency, and is up for a Grammy — Earle’s ninth nomination.

“I’m not gonna get it,” Earle said in a recent phone interview cut short by technical difficulties. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

But where El Corazon was a rich and varied patchwork, Earle’s latest sticks to a tighter path.

An unabashedly political album, Jerusalem has the narrative feel of a soundtrack. In fact, synchronicity and an easy flow have consistently marked Earle’s recordings, as with El Corazon (E-Squared/Warner Brothers) and the rich philosophical celebration that is Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis, 2000).

But this time, that cohesiveness is also central to the album’s driving message.

Though Jerusalem was in the works before Sept. 11, 2001, the songs are invariably colored by the principal American events of the last year-and-a-half, from the mass murder in the Twin Towers to the threat of mass bloodshed in the Middle East.

Capturing our era of tension — and the sympathies of like-minded listeners — Earle writes in the album’s liner notes: “Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America. Frankly, I’ve never worn red, white, and blue that well.”

He expresses a similar sentiment in the darkly beautiful “John Walker’s Blues,” a song predictably misinterpreted in both the mainstream and right-wing media. “Blues” is a speculative, Don DeLillo-style journey into the mind of Berkeley, Calif., teenager and Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh.

“I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV,” Earle sings from Lindh’s perspective. “And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads/ But none of them look like me …”

Despite claims from reactionary sectors of the press that the song endorses Lindh’s travels in terrorist circles, anyone even passingly familiar with storytelling will recognize the tragic ballad for what it is: Earle wondering aloud what would drive an American kid in the Land of the Free to go so far away — and so far awry — in a quest for “a light out of the dim.”

Jerusalem’s wrecking-ball-tough opening track “Ashes to Ashes” would make a fitting substitute for the martial theme music currently accompanying the nightly “WAR ON IRAQ” video montages on CNN and Fox News. Earle seems to have both Bush and Hussein in mind when he sings, “There was blood on their hands and a plague on the land/ They drew a line in the sand and made their last stand … When asked about the men that died by their hand/ They said ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust.'”

“The Truth,” a sinister ballad, arrives last in this Trilogy of Earle-y 21st-Century America. It is, on the surface, an internal monologue delivered by a violent-sounding longtime prison inmate. Underneath, however, lurks a broader warning about both physical and mental prisons:

“For every wall you build around your fear/ A thousand darker things are born in here/ And they’re fed on contempt for all that you hold dear/ Truth is it doesn’t matter what you do/ ‘Til you gaze in the mirror with an eye that’s true/ And admit that what scares you is the me in you.”

But rest assured that Earle’s music appeals to a broader audience than just bespectacled Chomsky readers. I first learned of the guy from the same born-and-bred Yancey County sons who took time from rocking out to the hard-country burn of Earle’s Copperhead Road (Universal, 1988) to teach me the pleasures to be had in killing Mountain Dew cans with a shotgun.

And though Earle does write about Emma Goldman and Malcolm X (El Corazon’s plaintive “Christmas in Washington”) and is well known for his campaigns against land mines and the death penalty, he is as articulately impassioned when he sings about driving long highways, drinking hard (as he often used to) and the frustrations of small-town life. He writes some of the most beautiful, woeful and true love songs you’ll ever hear.

Live, Earle still draws on material from Copperhead Road (recorded in part with Irish Celtic-punk louts The Pogues) and his celebrated debut album Guitar Town (MCA, 1986), as well as his more recent “alt-country” material.

Of course, it should be noted that Earle doesn’t consider himself a country artist at all. “I’m a songwriter,” the no-frills performer told Xpress. “I just happen to live in Nashville.”

Which is sad for country music.

But in the end, maybe it isn’t so awful that Jerusalem’s Grammy nomination is for Best Contemporary Folk Album instead of for Best Country Album. After all, Earle is keeping company this year with fellow nominee Johnny Cash, who hasn’t shown up lately on country radio either.

And if country music hasn’t got room for these guys, then why would anyone want to hang out there?

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