Steve Earle is a singer-songwriter who, if he could sing a little better, might be a poster boy for the conservative shut-up-and-sing school of thought regarding entertainers. He’s a self-avowed Marxist who had a drug habit nasty enough that it led to his incarceration in 1994.
In 1999 Earle briefly united with the bluegrass traditionalist Del McCoury Band to record “The Mountain” and tour in support of the disc. I persuaded John Hinderaker and his wife to join us for Earle’s show with the McCoury Band when their tour hit the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
John understandably confused Earle, the purported star of the show, with McCoury, the guy with the superior performing talent. McCoury parted ways with Earle shortly thereafter, McCoury reportedly refusing to continue to subject his fans to Earle’s vulgarity; Earle says the falling out was over money and billing.
In his post 9/11 song “John Walker Blues,” Earle adopted the perspective of the Taliban spokesman and American traitor. “Sometimes a man has to fight for what he believes,” Earle sang. In the title and title song of his 2004 disc Earle proclaimed: “The Revolution Starts…Now.” Up against the wall! Earle is something of a sixties throwback.
I’d lost track of Earle until Ben Ratliff reviewed Earle’s show in the South Village at the City Winery for the New York Times. In his review Ratliff captured the weirdness — Ronald Radosh called it cognitive dissonance — of Earle plying his shtick at this particular venue together with Allison Moorer (Earle’s seventh wife):
Let’s break that down. Most of us would agree that this is an exquisitely strange time, anywhere, for the opening of a club and restaurant with wine-making facilities on the premises, where annual membership will cost $5,000, and a barrel of your own custom blend somewhere around $2,000. (Although you can buy a ticket for an individual concert without a membership, and order a Riesling and a sampler of cheese from Murray’s. Or just a glass of water; there’s no minimum.)
It’s strange that the restaurant — unlike comparable operations in Napa Valley — is located far from a major wine-making region; when you create your own wine here, you’re only halfway buying local. And it’s strange (but kind of funny) that what most people call a double bill — two artists whose work has something in common — City Winery calls “Pairings.”
But it was strangest of all that Steve Earle — a self-defined socialist and generally a songwriter and performer who doesn’t waste a sticky situation — did not comment on the dissonance of the evening. Here were songs, after all, about people whose lives are measured in miles per gallon, dollars per kilo, bullets per murder, and they were being played in a blond wood cabaret that seems built on the air jets of Wall Street status.
Ratliff doesn’t quite do justice to the absurdity in its fullness. Ratliff is respectful of Earle’s disquisitions on politics, history and political psychology:
Mr. Earle played a good, long and fidgety solo acoustic set of songs going back 25 years, with spoken asides about Barack Obama (he felt good about casting a Tennessee vote for a black man, and trusts that the next president will listen to protest); the historian Stephen Ambrose (whose work enlightened Mr. Earle about the Americans’ war on the Sioux, and led him to a firmer position against manifest destiny); and the death penalty (he wondered if the United States, if it didn’t have a history of killing the imprisoned, would have invaded Iraq without proper cause).
Ratliff found the feel of Earle’s songs about Kentucky, Tennessee, Copperhead Road, Taneytown, and Guitar Town, to be “very, very far away.” Ratliff finds Earle’s spoken asides au courant. Nevertheless, they also feel “very, very far away” to me, at least in time. They take me back to the sophomoric gleanings of my college days. And who cares what Earle says about American history when we could hear him meditate on whether love is lovelier the seventh time around?
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