Steve Earle's Hammer: A Talented Songwriter Puts His Message before His Music

By Walker, Jesse | Reason, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Steve Earle's Hammer: A Talented Songwriter Puts His Message before His Music


Walker, Jesse, Reason


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"One of these days, I'm gonna lay this hammer down," the singer-songwriter Steve Earle declares on his newest CD, Washington Square Serenade. "Leave my burden restin' on the ground/When the air don't choke ya and the ocean's clean/And kids don't die for gasoline/One of these days I'm gonna lay this hammer down."

The song is called "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)," and it's not hard to figure out who Pete is: The folk singer Pete Seeger was slinging the same bludgeon when he wrote "Ill Had a Hammer" in 1949. The left-libertarian critic Dwight Macdonald once said that Seeger favored "all the right Causes from getting out of Vietnam to getting into ecology. But they're folkery-fakery for all that." Earle, 53, is a gifted songwriter, and he made some of the finest country and rock records of the '80s and '90s. But he's come down with Seeger's folkery-fakery disease.

The problem is not, as some disillusioned fans claim, that his music became "political" after 9/11. Earle has been singing about politics since his first albums appeared in the '80s. What changed is that the music became earnest. Once Earle gave us story-songs filled with wry asides and telling details; they dealt with war, class, the death penalty, and other weighty issues, but they hardly ever hectored the listener. Then he picked up that hammer, and Lord how he hammers every single point home. Steve Earle used to write stories. Now he writes op-eds.

To sample the old Earle, listen to the title track of his 1988 album Copperhead Road. The narrator, a Vietnam vet from a long line of moonshiners, comes home from the war and decides to get into the marijuana business. The song moves through three generations in three verses, telling the story with economy but without neglecting the details that give the tale authenticity ("Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge/Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge"). The song ends with a vivid scene: "Well the DEA'S got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I'm back over there/I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie, don't you know/You better stay away from Copperhead Road."

That's a far cry from the songs on Jerusalem (2002) and The Revolution Starts Now (2004), which sacrifice color and texture to make their points. Many of the songs don't tell stories at all, preferring to tell us directly that, say, "There's doctors down on Wall Street/Sharpenin' their scalpels and tryin' to cut a deal/Meanwhile, back at the hospital/We got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills. …

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