In high school, he volunteered with Amigos de las Americas in the Dominican Republic. As an adult, he's toured constantly through the United States and Europe, and in the past few years, he's called Ohio, Los Angeles and now Joshua Tree, Calif., home. Ammunition, his fourth release, was recorded in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Joshua Tree and Alaska.
Via e-mail from the Netherlands, he says of his travels: "I learned something many North Americans never get to learn--that the world doesn't start and end with the United States."
Easton's 2001 release, Break Your Mother's Heart, took shape during a sojourn in Oaxaca, and a chance encounter in Prague inspired three tracks on Ammunition, including the opener, "Black Dog."
The song seems to be about a disobedient pet that wanders and makes trouble with the neighbors. But lest the metaphor elude you, Don Heffington's drums loom like a gathering storm. There's more to this story. Easton says a girl in Prague, who didn't want much to do with him, often started sentences with "before the revolution." He says, "I'd never known anybody that had lived through one, so I wanted to be next to her." She told him, "Your government is a black dog," and a song was born.
Ammunition is loaded with Easton's impressions of living in these times. He explains, "I live near a military base. They are always testing their ammunition out on the bombing range, and I can hear it in my house. These songs are my ammunition."
He fires one on Christianists with the ingeniously biting "J.P.M.F.Y.F." ("Jesus, protect me from your followers ... just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred ... They are screaming fury from my television"). Liner notes invite us to add our own verses. He lobs another with "News Blackout," which features the indelible line, "I know he's lying, because his lips are still moving." The song also highlights his keen affinity with old blues forms.
Ammunition isn't entirely polemical, though, any more than Easton's life is entirely focused on world affairs. There is love here, too--the intoxication of new love, as in "Next to You," and the bitter root of love exhausted, as in "I Wish You Well," more specific in its details than most songs of its ilk. There's a song about Los Angeles, "Not Today," reprising the cynical view of the place he first visited on Break Your Mother's Heart. There's even a nod to David Bowie's "Five Years" in "Dear Old Song and Dance," a farewell tour of vices abused. "It's the chord progression, mostly," Easton says of the Bowie influence. "I also owe part of that song to Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards in the lyrical department."
But the most engaging tracks, the unique ones, are those that plumb the depths of Easton's old blues soul. "C-Dub" is a new classic story-song along the lines of "Frankie and Johnny." He also offers a remarkably affecting treatment of the blues standard "Sitting on Top of the World," performed off the cuff as tape happened to be running.
Easton puts his songs over with a raspy, homey voice, somewhere between Jeff Tweedy's and Bob Dylan's, artists that will come to mind in other ways throughout Ammunition, as will The Beatles and Big Bill Broonzy. He's not imitating anybody, just using what he's got, although he admits that some of his songs call other artists to mind, even to him.
Neither does he lean on guest appearances, which are meted out lightly over Ammunition. Former Jayhawk Gary Louris lends some Beatles-textured, high harmonies to "Oh People," an almost wistful parting of ways that pinpoints the isolating nature of integrity. Louris also co-produced three tracks. Tift Merritt gentles up "Next to You," another song inspired by the girl on the bridge. Victoria Williams, too, played a role in Ammunition; although she's not credited for a performance, much of the recording was done in her Joshua Tree studio.
Lucinda Williams, who headed the bill that brought Easton to Tucson in March, sings backing vocals on "Back to the Pain," a plea to a victim of her own habitually bad choices. Of Williams, Easton says, "She's my favorite songwriter, and she can make you feel it. That was the best tour I have ever been on." For Easton, the perpetually globe-trotting troubadour, that's saying something.
Ammunition's songs are forged for traveling light, and Easton is performing them solo throughout this tour. Fans who've only seen him with a band will find that these performances focus more on Easton's greatest strengths: "My songwriting is better. The characters have similar voices, but they're more to the point. There's more economy in the lyrics." And they can be as powerful as mortar fire.