Country singer, political activist, Texan rocker, and pariah to the shock-jock Right, Steve Earle is hitting the campaign trail of swing states right up to the American election, bringing his show to the heart of the US political process. His aim is to help put John Kerry into the White House, though it's unlikely that Kerry will be joining him on the stage at CBGBs, the legendary New York club, when the results start to roll in on the night of 2 November - better known south of Texas as the Day of the Dead.
Talking in his record company's office in New York, it's political process and the revitalising of American democracy that is uppermost in his mind and his latest music. "People's attitude out there a couple of years ago was that their vote didn't really count," he says, "because the last election was stolen. It's that we have to overcome if we don't overcome anything else."
His new album, The Revolution Starts Now, has just been released, and over the next few months he'll be pounding battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan with his band The Dukes, and hosting his own radio show, preaching to the unconverted on the dangers of opting out of the democratic process and the perils of a second dose of George Bush. "Right now," he says, "the revolution is about not losing any more ground. We're going through a period - it's not the first, but it's one of the worst in the constitution's history. We have to get back to square one."
He joins REM, Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt, who have been part of the Vote for Change concerts across America. "I think now the tide's turning," he says, "people are starting to wake up." America's rock musicians are finally finding their public voice, with or without the approval of the industry conglomerates that virtually own their careers. "Nobody cared when I walked on with a T-shirt saying Fuck the War," he says, "because everyone knows I'm a pinko. When Natalie from The Dixie Chicks did it, it really threatened people, and the people it threatened have a whole lot of power, such as the group which owns Clear Channel." Armed with its power to pull the plug on artists who spoke out, until recently Clear Channel's brand of commercial censorship proved as effective as any strong-arm junta's.
"The other part of revolution right now," Earle says, putting a context to his album's title, "is waking up to what happened. It's not about 'Them'," he says, gleefully spitting out the word. "There's always a 'Them'. It's part of the natural balance of things." It is, he says, all about "Us". "I think we went to sleep. The very same people who stopped the Vietnam War stopped being involved. America has become a different country, going in a completely different direction from when I was growing up. And I think we have to take responsibility for that. It is a very, very scary world we're in right now." He sees a country that has always needed something to be afraid of thrashing blindly in its own state of fear with an enemy it doesn't understand. "I grew up being taken to bomb shelters during the Cuban missile crisis, and I find this much more frightening."
The title track, a stripped-down rocker bolted and riveted to a hardline riff, opens and closes the album, and in between are rhetorical, topical songs addressed as much to the flag-waving conscripts to Bush's endless war as to his own constituency. For Earle, Revolution is an anti-war record from the perspective of people on the front lines, whether they're truck drivers or soldiers.
"I had two songs I really wanted heard before the election; 'Rich Man's War' and 'The Revolution Starts Now'." With a strict deadline to ensure the record's timely release, Earle wrote and recorded at breakneck speed. "I literally was waking up with a blank piece of paper and going home 13 or 14 hours later with a finished track," he explains. "I've never made a record that way before and I don't think I want to do it again, if I can help it. But I'm really proud of it; there's a sort of immediacy to the whole thing. There's a vibe to it, that kind of urgency throughout the record." Nevertheless, Revolution is an album with fixed co-ordinates, and its topicality risks becoming outdated in a way that the likes of his earlier classics Copperhead Road or Transcendental Blues do not.
"Warrior", one of the album's more oblique tracks, began as a Doors-influenced riff hammered out during sound checks. It also betrays the influence of his extra-curricular activities. "I never would have written 'Warrior' without my involvement in the theatre," he says. His play, Karla, about the executed Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker, is due to run at New York's Bleeker Street Theatre, following its premiere in Nashville, and the excellent short-story collection Doghouse Roses will be followed in 2006 by his first novel. These days, the onetime hellraiser who learnt his songwriting trade and the lifestyle to go with it from the late Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, is more polymath than sociopath.
"I was lucky," he says of his musical influences. "I met Townes when I was 17, and believe me, he was pretty much at the height of his powers." A real good influence and a real bad role model, he would later describe him. "It's an impressive thing if you're 17 and want to be a songwriter."
For "Warrior", the starting point was the prologue from Henry V. "I got an actor friend who was staying with me to come in and read it, and then I went back using that as a template, with the same number of lines, all iambic pentameters, and wrote 'Warrior'. I did it," he says, "the way I made The Mountain. I was using muscles I had never used before." He adds: "I would like for Townes to have heard 'Warrior' because Townes thought in iambic pentameter. He was a very poetic songwriter; he dealt in poetics all the time. Guy Clark is more of a story songwriter who writes prose that happens to rhyme. And I really come from that school most of the time, but I'm much prouder of the stuff in Townes's direction."
Only a couple of songs transcend the election-year topicality of the album. They include a bittersweet duet with Emmylou Harris for the forthcoming Robert Redford film, Unfinished Lives, and the world-weary "I Thought You Ought to Know". This tale of fleeting mutual seduction from one who's been this way one too many times and still can't get enough, is among the album's strongest tracks, perhaps because, emotionally, it cuts the deepest.
"It's more about sex than love. It's not normal for me," he admits. "I think it's because I'm single. My girlfriend baled out, and I've just kind of given up for the time being on cohabiting with people. So I'm living by myself, and I'm kind of digging it. I wouldn't live with me. I'm gone all the time. I'm absolutely allergic to being within the city limits of one municipality for longer than 30 days. And I always have been."
If proof be needed that Earle's nomadic drive goes hand in hand with his guitar, the day after the election, he and The Dukes set out for Holland and a lengthy European tour that reaches Britain in December. And if Bush wins a second term? "I can't bring myself even to think about that," he says, and thinks even a Kerry victory is only the beginning of the real work to come.
"After September 11, everyone was on our side, and we've scuppered that in an amazingly short period of time," he says. "We all know that saying something and doing it in politics are two different things, but the one thing Kerry can do is to start repairing this country's relationships with the world. And if we can do that, then we're back in the game." It also gives Steve Earle the chance to sing about all that other stuff again. "We gotta win this election," he confirms, "so that I can go back to writing chick songs."
'The Revolution Starts Now' is on Artemis Records/Rykodisc. BBC4 screens a Steve Earle profile on 8 OctoberReuse content