Death-House Troubadour: Steve Earle Rocks 'N' Rants against Capital Punishment
Corn, David, The Nation
Heavy hearts, forgotten goodbyes, gritty living, trains, self-destruction and lost highways: Steve Earle pens and records songs that dish out the traditional fare of country music. And he does it so well he's been covered by Travis Tritt (who had a hit with Earle's "Sometimes She Forgets"), Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Shawn Colvin. The country rocker, much acclaimed for his edgy songwriting in the Texas troubadour tradition, has also written two of the best songs on a topic not often tackled by the good ol' boys and gals of Opryland--capital punishment. One has even been deployed as an organizing tool by Amnesty International in its anti death penalty campaign. A redneck against the death penalty? A bit odd, isn't it? Earle doesn't see it that way. Recently, moments after he finished working on an album in Nashville for an act signed to his own label, E-Squared, the 42-year-old Earle, talking mighty fast, explained how his sawdust-and-whiskey voice came to be attached to evocative critiques of the death penalty.
"I've had this opinion ever since I was a little boy growing up in Texas," Earle said. "I remember my father writing to the governor for a stay of execution for Ralph Carl Powers. He was a kid who had killed another kid named Dicky Renfro [in 1963]. They were fighting and he picked up a gun. And there was a law in Texas at that time that allowed families of victims to hire their own prosecuting attorneys. Dicky Renfro had come from a wealthier family. So you had this high-priced prosecutor and a district attorney versus a public defender. Not a fair fight. Powers got the death penalty, and my father was against the death penalty. And when I was little I saw the movie In Cold Blood and that had a devastating effect on me. The inhumanity--of the crime and the execution. The scene that made a real impression was when the Robert Blake character is harnessed up to be hanged. And there's an argument about whether to let him go to the bathroom. And a guard says, Don't worry about messing yourself, everyone does it. So I'm against the death penalty on every level. It is nothing more than about pain. And who believes the justice system can do anything right all the time?"
It took years for Earle to put his thoughts to a tune. What emerged on his 1990 album The Hard Way was "Billy Austin." Earle took a straightforward approach: The music is mostly an acoustic guitar. The melody is melancholy. In the first person, he tells the tale of a 29-year-old fellow who had committed a long string of filling-station robberies. Then one day, for no good reason, he shoots dead a young attendant during a stickup. He is convicted and sentenced to die. "Because `Billy Austin' is in the first person, some people thought I was trying to elicit sympathy for the character," Earle notes. "I wasn't trying to do that. I made sure Billy was guilty as hell and that he's not someone you're going to like. I've corresponded with several guys on death row. Everyone I correspond with is guilty and I'm reasonably sure most of them need to be locked up." In fact, in the song, Billy asserts, "I ain't about to tell you/That I don't deserve to die." Then he says of death row: "There's twenty-seven men here/mostly black and brown and poor/Most of them are guilty/And who are you to say for sure?" And he poses the essential question: "Could you pull that switch yourself, sir/With a sure and steady hand?/Could you still tell yourself, sir/That you're better than I am?"
After "Billy Austin" was released, Amnesty International came calling. Earle was a prized celeb catch. His 1986 debut album, Guitar Town, had been praised as a hardass, shit-kicking, black-leather-boots counterpoint to the white-hat "New Country" of Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. In 1988, the title track of Earle's third album, Copperhead Road, was a hit--more rock than country--and he was hailed as the Springsteen (or at least the Mellencamp) of Nashville. Earle accepted Amnesty's invitation and participated in an anti death penalty march in Austin that culminated at a rally where, beneath the dome of the State Capitol, Earle played "Billy Austin. …