As far as Steve Earle can tell, there aren't any quantifiable benefits or detriments to being a controversially outspoken musician.
Back during the summer, when it was reported that Earle's forthcoming album was to include a song about American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, the 47-year-old, Nashville country rocker suddenly found himself cast as a villainous traitor by several conservative commentators.
Steve Gill, a popular, right-wing morning radio host in Nashville, proposed a boycott of Jerusalem, the album containing the song. He also demanded "John Walker's Blues" and other songs from the disc be barred from radio. To no apparent effect.
"I've sold about the same number of records so far as I always sell," said Earle, in Toronto recently to promote Jerusalem and a tour, which is slated to stop here next spring. "I'm getting radio airplay from the same places I always get it, which is on Triple-A or adult alternative stations, about half of which are public radio stations. That's where I've been getting airplay for the past 10 years."
When all is said and done, Earle expects Jerusalem, released last month, to sell in the neighbourhood of 400,000 copies worldwide, equalling his previous outing, the critically acclaimed Transcendental Blues of two years ago.
Earle's need to speak his mind remains similarly unaffected.
"I don't condone what John Walker Lindh did," he said. "But I have a problem with (the US) reaction to it. I think we punished a 20-year-old kid because we couldn't get Osama bin Laden."
Earle, who has done jail time for drug use and who has been a critic of the US prison system, takes a dim view of the 20-year sentence imposed on Lindh.
"He's only 20. That should count for something," Earle said.
"Nobody's even accused him of firing a shot at anyone. Twenty years is a long time, for somebody who never fired a shot. In (the US), if you get a gun and threaten to kill somebody, you don't get 20 years.
"I'm not sure it's even illegal for an American to emigrate to another country and join an armed force there. The whole thing got blown out of proportion to make (US Attorney General) John Ashcroft look tough. And I'm not okay with that.
"My song tries to humanise Lindh. If someone is being judged publicly, they deserve to be judged as a human being, not as a poster child for everyone's deepest, darkest fears."
"John Walker's Blues" hardly ranks as the harshest societal critique on Jerusalem. "Ashes To Ashes" portrays the US as headed down the same doomed road as previous imperial powers. "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" slams the deficiencies of the US health care system.
While Earle has been one of the few American voices of dissent since 9/11, he predicts that if the US goes to war against Iraq "we're going to hear a lot more music like this.
"Even before Sept. 11, there was a plan to go into Iraq," Earle continues. "And to me, using the lives of Americans to further the oil agenda is despicable.
"When you jump from Al Qaeda to Iraq, there's no way you can do that without making it a war against Islam. And that's dangerous. That's a war we can't win.
"If we alienate the Islamic world, it's not going to be about dropping a couple of bombs and then it's over. We're going to be fighting true zealots. You can win those wars but only at a great, great cost."
(Steve Earle) I woke up this mornin' and none of the news was good And death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way And there was nothin' anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him Yeah, I almost lost my mind Then I regained my senses again And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I'm only dreamin' and maybe I'm just a fool But I don't remember learnin' how to hate in Sunday school But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin' in And I can't lay me down And the drums are drummin' again And I can't stand the sound
But I believe there'll come a day when the lion and the lamb Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there'll be no barricades then There'll be no wire or walls And we can wash all this blood from our hands And all this hatred from our souls
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Vit Wagner is a music critic with the Toronto Star and his article is reproduced courtesy of the Toronto Star Syndicate. "Jerusalem" is the title track from Steve Earle's new album. The song is written by Steve Earle and published by Sarangel Music (ASCAP). Sarangel Music Administered by Tom Snell for Sussman & Associates (US & Canada) and Bug Music (International). The lyrics are reprinted by kind permission.
Suggested citation Wagner, Vit, 'And death machines were rumblin' ...', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 7, November 2002.<https://evatt.org.au/post/death-machines-were-rumblin>