Holy Land

Steve Earle brings his patriotic 'Jerusalem' to Tucson.

The years bridging the recent turn of the century have marked a prolific time for Steve Earle.

Not only has the rockin' country singer-songwriter seen the release of five albums under his name since 1999 but he has authored a book of short stories (Doghouse Roses), written a play (Karla, about convicted murder Karla Faye Tucker; Earle is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty) and acted on the HBO TV series The Wire. Now, he's working on a novel.

When not on the road, that is. Earle is touring to promote his latest album, the critically lauded Jerusalem, which brings him and his band to Tucson for a concert Jan. 22 at the Rialto Theatre.

In a telephone interview last week from his manager's office in Nashville, Earle was not hesitant to describe Jerusalem as an overtly political album, inspired by the state of our country and the world after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Once he settled on the subject matter, Earle wrote the album's songs under the gun, he said.

"I wrote this record pretty quickly. I really did have a deadline because I felt like songs were perishable. I was up against a pretty hard wall of Sept. 11. I had to rush to get it done."

Earle explained that he wanted to release Jerusalem as close as possible to the first anniversary of Sept. 11 (it came out Sept. 24) because any later and it would have been considered a holiday release. And had the record been delayed until now (post-holidays), interest in its subject matter might've cooled.

"I mean, I'm not the kind of artist who everybody's rushing out to give my albums as Christmas gifts to your kid, you know? So if we had waited until now to release it, John Walker Lindh could've been sentenced and gone and forgotten."

Speaking of Lindh, Jerusalem's most controversial cut is probably "John Walker's Blues," in which Earle assumes the persona of the disenchanted 21-year-old American from Marin County who joined the Taliban. It's a classic, folk-song-style character study, but right-wing media hawks have taken Earle to task for being unpatriotic. Which was hardly a surprise for the artist.

"I think (the uproar) was what I expected and it came from the places I expected it to come from, considering that this is a country where (Attorney General) John Ashcroft considers simply questioning the government to make you a traitor," Earle said. "As records about American politics go, it's really a patriotic record, I think. And the people who matter--my peers in the artistic communities--I think that any intelligent person knows that. They get it."

With songs such as "Ashes to Ashes," "Amerika v 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," "Conspiracy Theory" and its title track, Jerusalem is the other notable album about the state of our union released in 2002. It makes an admirable companion piece to Bruce Springsteen's The Rising.

The albums are "just two different ways of reacting to the same thing," Earle said. "Bruce is communicating in human terms, and I am communicating in political terms."

Although the tradition of healthy dissent in American popular song is a strong one, Earle doesn't fall back on the argument that this country was founded on the idea that to be American is to question and challenge the status quo.

"Well, a lot of the founding fathers were just rich farmers and landowners who didn't want to pay British taxes and answer to a distant authority. But I think our Constitution is a lot hipper document that its framers intended. Being arrogant imperialists is an American tradition, but the Constitution is one of the few things in this country that in hundreds of years will have lasted."

On Jerusalem, Earle continues to explore a wide variety of musical styles--he's not simply a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. He's a lot of both, not to mention bluegrass, blues, folk and R&B.

"Well, I've got a recording studio and guitars and gadgets, so I'm constantly in there making new stuff up. It's a luxury for me to create."

No kidding. After spending the 1980s and early '90s juggling the roles of critics' darling and an artist of infamous excess (various addictions, jail time, five marriages), Earle got straight and got focused by the mid '90s. Now, he's a workaholic and his fans benefit.

In addition to his other pursuits, Earle is devoted to looking after his kids and, through his E-Squared record label, other musical artists, such as the Philadelphia rock band Marah and singer-songwriter Anders Parker of the indie band Varnaline.

Does he have time for anything else?

"Well, I read too much. I'm always reading several things at once. The best fiction I've read lately is by Nick Tosches, his novel In the Hands of Dante, which is just a mind-fucking-blowing book. It's about a manuscript in Dante's hands, which is amazing because it doesn't exist, but then Tosches went and wrote himself as a character into his book!"

Also on Earle's current reading list: Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalization of the life of New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden; Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston Jr.; and Hayden Herrera's Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, on which the recent biopic was based.

By the time his tour bus pulls into Tucson next week, Earle will probably be finished with those and be into a new batch.

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