The Revolution Starts?Now
If Steve Earle could sing like Toby Keith, he’d be knocking’em dead at the Kerry inaugural next January. Hell, if Earle couldmuster even a sliver of Keith’s well-groomed stolidity, he might beable to save a song like the klutzy, would-be-anthemic title track ofhis 12th studio album, an otherwise canny survey of life duringwartime. Though he may be a man of the people, Earle’s never been theman for them–mainstream country fans would’ve eventually tunedout his pack-a-day rasp even if he hadn’t deserted them first, almost20 years back.
Yet Earle’s demagogic weakness is his artisticstrength: His characters feel like individuals, not archetypes. Twoyears back, on “John Walker’s Blues,” he burrowed so deeply into thepsyche of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, the 21st century’s mostnotorious U.S. turncoat, that conservatives willfully mistook hisdiagnosis of a pathology for undiluted sympathy. Now, adjusting for atime when Keith himself questions the wisdom of our Iraqi escapade andHoward Stern breeds a nation of First Amendment activists, Earle’scharacters seem less alienating. On “Home to Houston”–a giddy,easy-shuffling rocker à la Buck Owens–a soldier rolls out of Basrapromising never to drive a truck again if God’ll get his ass back toTexas alive.
As a writer whose gift is voicing others’ perspectives,Earle often becomes more convincing when he emulates other singers. Hechannels Patti Smith in slam-poet mode on the spoken-word “Warrior” andSpringsteen as Tom Joad for “Rich Man’s War.” And on “F the CC,”goddamn if he doesn’t sound like Tom Petty, circa 1987’s cranky”Jammin’ Me,” railing against acid rain and Joe Piscopo. True, Earle’s”Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA” chorus is more obviousthan shocking–the friction between consonants on the calypso lustletter “Condi, Condi” is far filthier. But his snarled “livin’ in themotherfuckin’ USA” rings with such proud defiance, you’ll wonder whatdipshit left the cuss words out of the Pledge of Allegiance in thefirst place.