Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.
This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.
This issue is going to press just days after a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer was run over and killed in broad daylight in Charlottesville, Virginia while protesting a white supremacist rally. Nineteen others were reported injured that day, including a black man named Deandre Harris was severely beaten in a parking garage by some of the marchers.
President Trump drew ire for not immediately denouncing the white supremacists with Unite The Right, a segment that is understood to be part and parcel of his base. The following Monday he finally rebuked them, but for many it was too little, too late. There were also more callings for the firing of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose prior work at the right-wing website Breitbart, Bannon once claimed, helped create the platform for the alt-right, a movement dedicated to white supremacy and white nationalism.
As of press time there are plans for more white supremacist rallies and Richard Spenser, the buttoned-up de facto leader of the movement, has vowed to make Charlottesville the center of its universe.
There will no doubt be a flood of songs about Charlottesville. It was a historical moment, to be sure. Wilco released one just two days after the event, with proceeds benefiting the Southern Poverty Law Center. “My dad was named after a Civil War general, and he voted for Barack Obama twice,” Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy said upon the song’s release. “He used to say, ‘If you know better, you can do better.’ America — we know better. We can do better.”
It’s been argued Trump’s appeal to the white working class is due to the group’s economic desolation. But the alt-right, whose actual numbers don’t appear to be that large, are driven by other things as well. Spencer’s motivation appears to be purely ethnocultural. He is the son of a north Dallas ophthalmologist and holds degrees from the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Duke University. He does not come from a desperate economic situation — he just wants a white nation state.
Art and politics have always been tricky bedfellows, and it is a difficult balancing act when songwriters take on the big societal issues. How constructive is agitprop or rhetoric in songwriting? And how do you avoid just preaching to the choir?
Steve Earle, no stranger to politically tinged songs, says the job of songwriting is about empathy, about making people see the humanity in those different from them (a tall order when dealing with neo-Nazis). Bruce Springsteen has adroitly walked the line between the political and personal. A lifelong Democrat who campaigned for Obama and Hillary Clinton, Springsteen’s audience comprises fans from all political stripes, even though he has caught heat at times. A New York Police group, for instance, called for a boycott after the Boss wrote and performed“American Skin (41 Shots),” a song from ’99 about the shooting of Amadou Diallo by four NYPD plain-clothes officers. Springsteen continues to play the song in concert to this day.
So much of American folk music, it seems, has tilted toward the left. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were not partisans but they frequently targeted fascists and authoritarianism. The famously omitted verse of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” questions the legitimacy of private property and his song “The Unwelcome Guest,”from the Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid Avenue sessions, is a Marxist anthem if there ever was one.
Country music, throughout its history, has spoken to a certain social structure, one that is largely religious and conservative. Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” was in many ways a tribute to the white working class. Haggard wrote it, he said, in support of the type of people he grew up with, the ones who were going to be sent to Vietnam because they had no other choice. He was tired of seeing them get picked on by the hippies and privileged class, so he stood up for them.
The late Lou Reed once asked Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright from Czechoslovakia whose work helped dismantle Communism, and who later became president of the Czech Republic, if art and music could change the world. Havel said art could not change things on its own, but added that it could change people, and it was up to them to take it from there.
Since Trump’s election, there has been a growing chorus calling for country artists to speak out against racism, since they have the ear of rural and conservative America. One mainstream country singer, Kip Moore, took to Instagram after Charlottesville and repudiated the racism he saw growing up that still exists.
“The gift of kindness may start as a small ripple that has the potential of turning into a tidal wave,” Moore wrote. “… It starts with each one of us individually if we wanna change what this world looks like. Go out of your way to take care of people and spread kindness … I’m not tryin’ to preach, but I’m way more concerned with the state of my fellow brother than the state of my Instagram following. Take a break from your 100th bathroom selfie and pay attention to what’s taking place around you.”
Late in his set at the Ryman Auditorium, Steve Earle said he’d stood onstage in Chicago many moons ago and told fans that all of his dreams had come true. It was in that moment, he said, that he realized he needed to find some new dreams, and find them fast.
One of those second-act dreams came true Friday night when the so-called last of the hardcore troubadours, whose career has spanned 17 albums and survived all manner of slings and arrows, headlined the Ryman for the first time.
“This is a big deal for us,” he told the crowd.
A child of Texas, Earle was seven years old visiting his grandmother in Nashville, he said, when he first came to the Ryman, where he watched from the balcony as Bill Monroe performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He said he’d been thinking about that experience all day before launching into “You Broke My Heart,” an old-timey sounding country waltz that he wrote in the spirit of the venue.
“You Broke My Heart” features on Earle’s latest, So You Wanna Be Outlaw, an album that functions as a tribute of sorts to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and their fight to wrest artistic control away from the anal retentive Nashville studio system. Like so many country greats who get slapped with the problematic “outlaw” tag, Earle’s output has been both traditional and subversive, a fact that was evident in a set list that moved peripatetically across genres.
The front end of Earle’s show drew heavily from the new album, and the third song of the night, “The Firebreak Line,” tipped its hat to America’s firefighters. With wildfires menacing much of the West, the tune is a modern-day folk number that finds Earle channeling his innermost Woody Guthrie. Another set highlight was “News From Colorado,” a song he co-wrote with his niece Emily Earle and ex-wife Allison Moorer before they split.
“Emily is in the crowd tonight, and Allison is not,” Earle deadpanned, adding that the audience would be hearing more from his niece, a Nashville-based songwriter who “survived for four weeks on The Voice without managing to end up in the hot tub with CeeLo.”
Hanging over the night, as if in benediction, was the legacy of Guy Clark, a mentor to Earle and a host of other Texas and Tennessee songwriters through the years. Before performing “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a song written about Clark shortly after his death, Earle spoke about the “L.A. Freeway” writer’s final days and the all-night bus trip he took with Clark’s inner sanctum to deliver Guy’s ashes to Santa Fe. He then talked about his old teacher’s decision to co-write late in his career, a move that inspired Earle’s own recent co-writing ventures.
Back in the ‘70s, Clark had advised against co-writing, but he eventually changed his tune. “Mainly I just got stuck, I ran out of shit to say,” he told American Songwriter in 2011. “I’ve found that with co-writing, there are a lot of young phenomenal songwriters and guitar players that come over here and write. And I learn so much from these guys. I’ll go, ‘Wow, how did you think of that?’ Or, ‘let me learn it.’”
Earle encored the show with “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.” A song from Clark’s first album about a young kid and his hero’s death, it brought the night full circle.
Opening the show was Lucero, the Memphis bar-band exemplars who were playing the Mother Church for the first time. “We’ve never played the Ryman before but this is quite a place ya’ll have got,” said frontman Ben Nichols, who swigged whiskey throughout the set and joked that “you’d be nervous too if it was your first time playing the Ryman.”
There must be something about the Ryman and the memory of grandparents. Earle spoke about his grandmother, and before the last Lucero song of the night, Nichols wondered aloud what his grandfather would have thought about him playing the august venue. With just his accordionist, the unassuming frontman then delivered an emotional reading of “The War,” a song from 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings that recounts his grandfather’s experience in World War II. “Cause takin’ orders never suited me, giving them out was much worse,” Nichols sang, summoning a spirit kindred to his own.