The world according to Earle

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As Steve Earle approaches 50, he's becoming the punk rocker he never knew he was. The music he makes has become less refined, the production of his albums more off-the-cuff. The lyrics are still paramount, but the musical edges around them are now rougher.

"The punk thing I almost missed because I had my head down in singer-songwriters," says Earle, who was playing the Texas coffeehouse circuit in the '70s with his mentors Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Then he witnessed the infamous Sex Pistols tour of 1978. A hostile crowd assaulted the band in San Antonio with beer bottles, cracking Sid Vicious in the head.

"I don't know what the ballistic impact of a beer bottle about one-third full is, but it must be ferocious," says Earle. "Sid staggered around and bled for the rest of the set, which lasted all of about 20 minutes. So the music didn't really get a chance to hit me. But I went back to Austin after that and a friend of mine pulled out the first Elvis Costello record, and it blew my mind because the songs were so great."

Costello's "My Aim is True" built a bridge to new wave, "and all of a sudden I wanted to have an electric guitar again," Earle says. "Buying that guitar morphed into my first electric band; we played rockabilly and it led to my first record deal. A few years later I made [the 1986 breakthrough album] `Guitar Town.' I almost missed punk, but thank God I didn't, because it restored my faith in rock 'n' roll."

No Earle album is more steeped in that spirit than his latest, "The Revolution Starts … Now" (E-Squared/Artemis), which was knocked out in punk-rock song-a-day fashion. "We made this record after me and my band played about 175 shows in a year and a half," Earle says. "We were still able to finish each other's sentences as a band, and we blasted it out."

"Revolution" is the sound of a songwriter kicking down the door because he's got something to say. "I basically couldn't have lived with myself if these two songs I wrote [`The Revolution Starts Now' and `Rich Man's War'] didn't come out before the election," he says. "I had a deadline to make." After pushing his voice on tour and getting nailed by spring allergies, Earle sounds raspy and exhausted, which gives the songs an even more desperate feel. The arrangements are unfussy, almost slapdash.

"The emotions are right up front on this album and they were there in the recording sessions," he says. "Everybody in the studio believes in the same thing I believe about how important this election is."

"The Revolution Starts Now" and "Rich Man's War" were written in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and reflect Earle's view that this a pivotal time in the country's future. Filmmaker Michael Moore includes "The Revolution Starts Now" in a new soundtrack for film "Fahrenheit 9/11," a caustic indictment of President Bush's foreign policy. "If I were a rock star, I would be Steve Earle," Moore says.

Like Moore, the Texas singer has filtered his outspoken views into his art throughout his career. Whether crusading against the death penalty ("Billy Austin") or daring to humanize the face of America's enemies ("John Walker's Blues"), Earle long ago earned his protest-singer merit badge. He acknowledges he would probably sell a few more records if he didn't constantly stick his neck out on controversial issues, but he says he never measured success in that way.

"I still make a lot more money than the vast majority of people in this country do," he says. "I sell about 100,000 records every time out and get to see the world. I live incredibly well, so it doesn't make sense to make a decision based on making more money. I make enough. Keeping my mouth shut about something would really hurt my art. I was taught to believe that's what the priority should be."

For Earle, the priorities have never been more clear. In the liner notes to the new album, the singer outlines what he means by "revolution." To him, the U.S. Constitution is a resilient and revolutionary document that will die if citizens don't participate in their government. The title song is a wake-up call for those who take it for granted. "I'd probably be living in Ireland right now if [George W. Bush] hadn't been elected," he says. "But I can't leave with the country in the state it's in. I don't hold Bush responsible for that. I hold us responsible. People who think like I do went to sleep in the last election."

Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.Originally published Oct. 7, 2004.

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