- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Nashville singer-songwriter Steve Earle has never been one to avoid controversy. In contrast to patriotism-boosting songs by country artists such as Toby Keith, Mr. Earle's "John Walker's Blues" seeks to understand the enemy. It's one of the tunes on his politically themed new album, "Jerusalem," released last Tuesday.
"John Walker's Blues" takes the viewpoint of John Walker Lindh, a 21-year-old Californian captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan who has pleaded guilty to fighting alongside the Taliban.
The song describes Lindh as "an American boy raised on MTV" who turns to another culture when his own fails to engage him.
"If my daddy could see me now chains around my feet/ He don't understand that sometimes a man/ Has to fight for what he believes," Mr. Earle sings.
In July, the song kicked up a fight between critics who found Mr. Earle unpatriotic and defenders who considered him provocative.
"I'm pretty unapologetic," Mr. Earle says. "I think I'm genuinely radical, and I insist that it's OK for me to be radical in a democracy."
The controversy came too early to provide him with the sales boost some critics have accused him of trying to manufacture.
"I discovered I had more leaks than the Bush administration," Mr. Earle says with a laugh. "I expected a reaction, but not before the record came out."
He was vacationing in Ireland when he learned what was going on back home.
Nashville talk-radio hosts claimed Mr. Earle had written the song to shock the public and kick-start a flagging career. The New York Post declared that Lindh was "glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song" in a story headlined "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat."
"Scapegoating's always dangerous," Mr. Earle says. "We operate much more efficiently with a boogeyman, and we haven't had one since the fall of the Soviet Union. John Walker Lindh, we just kind of stumbled into him."
After his return to the United States, Mr. Earle appeared on various national news programs, including the "Today" show and "Inside Edition" to belatedly defend himself.
"Nobody laid a glove on me," he says. "No intelligent person questions my right to do this, and I think it will help when people hear the song and understand that it's me assuming a character."
Mr. Earle adds: "The other thing is, I am much more left-wing than most people are."
Mr. Earle, 47, has long been considered one of Nashville's thorniest, most troubled and best artists. He apprenticed with Texas songwriters including Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark before moving to Nashville in the 1970s.
He started to pick up songwriting credits in the 1980s, then delivered the classic Bruce Springsteen-influenced album "Guitar Town" in 1986.
Critically lauded as a tremendous songwriter and performer, he has seen his career stalled in recent years by drug addiction and political outspokenness, mostly about his opposition to the death penalty.
On the day of the interview, Mr. Earle is wearing a T-shirt with the image of Lenin. "I believe that capitalism is fundamentally oppressive because it depends on the service of labor in order to thrive," he says.
"I believe that it's immoral for people to go hungry in the richest country in the world, or any of the richest countries in the world. I believe that it's immoral for us not to treat people when they're sick and they need treatment."
His fans are familiar with Mr. Earle's politics. That's why he dismisses the idea that he wrote "John Walker's Blues" as an attention-getter.
Mr. Earle says he has refused millions in sponsorship money from beer companies (because he's a recovering addict) and an opportunity to record a duet with Garth Brooks (because it didn't interest him artistically).
Both would have profited his career more than a song like "John Walker's Blues," which was sure to alienate many people.
"As much as I would like to say that my audience is working people, it's not," Mr. Earle says. "It's intellectuals in large cities. And even in that group of people, I bet you not even 50 percent agree with me about the death penalty.
"But I think my audience does respect my right to what I believe, and they will allow me that voice."

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