Two decades ago,
the alternative country movement propelled a group of politically aware
lyricists into the Nashville mainstream, and they brought with them empathy for
particular segments of American society: the female point of view, certain
religions, the lonely, the mentally ill, the aged and dying, the criminal, and
the mistreated. Among these lyricists
were Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash, two artists whose politics and empathy
manifest themselves in opposite, but equally effective, ways. Earle's fiction collection Doghouse Roses contains the same amount
of external overtness as his lyrics while Cash's lyrics and the stories from Bodies of Water and Songs Without Rhythm explore a woman's inner rhythms. In the first
of a two part article, Tennessee-based writer Roy Burkhead unravels the modes, messages and meanings of two
significant American music-makers. SW
Sixteen years ago.
Jason Hunt at Douglas Corner Café, 8th Avenue, in
Nashville, Tennessee: “I was part of a
songwriter's showcase. Steve was the featured writer. In other words, he played somewhere towards
the end of the show since a lot of people came just to see him. Steve showed up with two guitars and a
mandolin right before he was scheduled to go on. He had a blue bandana wrapped
around his right wrist. (This keeps
sweat off the guitar.) He was pretty big
news back then. His song "Guitar Town" had done well, as had his
album by the same name. What really
impressed me was that Bruce Springsteen had been seen going into a record store
somewhere in California. He came out with a copy of Guitar Town. Steve played
great set that night. When he broke a string on one guitar, he picked up the
other and said, ‘See, y'all thought I was just trying to look important
bringing in two guitars.’ He played mandolin on "Copperhead Road." At
one point, almost as if to pay Bruce back for all the publicity he'd inadvertently
sent Steve's way, Steve did a fantastic cover of Springsteen's "State
Trooper" off the Nebraska album,
the dark, acoustic masterpiece that Bruce recorded on a four-track in a
basement in New Jersey. After Steve's
show, he and I struck up a conversation at the bar. We were both drinking. It
was noisy and hard to hear, and I remember that Steve seemed like an umpire at
a baseball game, shouting his thoughts not four or five inches from my face.
told him I really liked his version of “State Trooper", and that I covered
quite a few songs from Nebraska
myself. He said, ‘Yeah, on rainy nights,
I like listening to that album and thinking about killing myself.’ I was never sure if he was being sarcastic
and commenting on the relentlessly somber tone of Nebraska or if he really enjoyed letting the music carry him to the
edge of the abyss. Maybe both” (Hunt, 2003).
With Earle getting drunk at the bar,
Nashville journalists and writers were fumbling through their vocabularies in
search of a way to comprehend what was going on in the joints and bars on 8th
Avenue, down Broadway, and along Music Row.
The result of this confusion was such frequent and contradictory terms
as “new traditionalism” (Earle, 2002a), “the alternative country movement”
(Morse, 1998), “the modern country music movement” (Hilburn, 1981),
“rockabilly” (Cooper, 2002a), and “the new country movement” (Shelbume, 2003).
“He (Steve Earle) was frequently
lumped in by journalists with Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam as spearheading
the New Traditionalist movement in country music. That always struck me as funny, lumping those
three together, since their music couldn’t have been more different” (Hunt,
In actuality, Earle’s arrival in
Nashville was one of the catalysts in a time more accurately described as the Age of Lyricists, spanning Townes
Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, David Olney, Rodney
Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Richard Dobson, Mark Germino, Jonell
Mosser, Steve Fromholz, Don Schlitz, and including, of course, Steve Earle and
And how were these lyricists rewarded?
In most cases, ignored with no—or
“Country radio’s always going to
have problems with the things I say,” Steve Earle said. “Country radio doesn’t
want to say anything” (Earle, 1993).
Early in her recording career,
Rosanne Cash encountered trouble as well with radio stations not playing her
songs because of such to-the-point lyrics as, “I don’t think you know how bad
you treat me/But I can’t live like a whore” from her 1985 album Rhythm & Romance (Cash, 1985).
“Radio stations don’t play my
music,” Rosanne Cash said in 2003 (Cash, 2003).
of Travel, Cash’s latest album, “is unlikely to get much airplay on country
stations. It doesn’t reflect what
country music is; it suggests what country music could be. The album implies that country music doesn’t
have to be teenage pop dressed up in cowboy hats and prom-queen hairdos—that it
could once again be a music for adults, reflecting their struggles to keep
their marriages together and their bills paid, as it was in the days of Hank
Williams and Merle Haggard” (Himes, 2003).
“I may alienate some people at times
with some issues,” Earle said. “But I
don’t think I’m here to tell people what they want to hear—there’s enough
people doing that already. I think that
insults the intelligence of the audience” (Goldsmith, 1990).
As reported in The Tennessean back in 1987, “radio problems cropped up with
Earle’s single ‘Sweet Little ’66’, which unfavorably compares the longevity of
Hondas and Subarus with the singer’s vintage Chevrolet. Dealers of those imported cars reportedly
complained about the lyrics of the song, which subsequently stopped its upward
motion in the country charts” (Goldsmith, 1987).
“I personally couldn’t care less,”
Earle said. “I hate Hondas and Subarus,
that’s why I wrote the song in the first place” (Goldsmith, 1987). And so goes the lyrics: “Now she ain’t too
good on gasoline, she burns a little oil/But she was built by union labor on
American soil/Sweet little ‘66/So when your Subaru is over and your Honda’s history/I’ll
be blastin’ down some back road with my baby next to me/In my sweet little ’66”
Beyond the larger lyrical movement
in Nashville, those in the media as early as 1987 were unable to properly
comprehend the motivation behind Earle’s lyrics. The tendency was to allude to the alleged
political nature of Earle’s lyrics by stacking such adjectives in front of his name
as “sociopolitical maverick” (Morse, 1998, 3D), “renegade rocker” (Gray, 1998),
“purveyor of grittily literate music” (Cooper, 2002a), “Nashville musical
renegade” (Cooper, 2000), “grizzled contemporary-country expatriate” (Cooper,
2002b), “radical patriot”(Earle, 2003b), and “maverick country rocker” (Earle,
In actuality, all lyrists like Steve
Earle and Rosanne Case were trying to do in their music, lyrics, and short
fiction was to be empathic towards certain people in our society: the female
point of view, certain religions, the lonely, the mentally ill, the aged and
dying, the criminal, the mistreated, prison guards, and so on.
have a real mission to tell stories that empathize with other people,” said
Luke Wallin, the author of such award winning
young adult novels as The Redneck
Poacher’s Son and The Slavery Ghosts,
Wallin is a professor of English at the University of
Massachusetts at Dartmouth, an adjunct graduate faculty member with Spalding
University, and a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Analysis.
“One of the points of Cash’s story
collection, Bodies of Water, is to
write about a woman’s inner rhythms, which really isn’t reflected in our
world,” Cash said. “Our world is pretty
much set up for the way men process information, and the way men think, and
that kind of male, linear mode of being—which we desperately need and in half
of reality. But women, therefore, are
made to feel hysterical, or made to feel crazy, because a lot of us don’t think
or process in that way” (Roland, 1996, 3D).
Earle agrees: “I think empathy is exactly what it is and
that empathy is definitely endangered in this climate. Instead, retribution is at a premium. The songs I’ve written . . .have one thing in
common: I’m trying to humanize people that others are trying to demonize, or at
least dehumanize. The notion of empathy
versus retribution comes up over and over.
I think you have to forgo retribution to arrive at justice” (Earle,
Despite the lack of airplay nowadays, the music of Earle and Cash has
Cash had a “decade-long stretch as one of country music’s most notable
artists. Though she has said she felt
spurned by the machinery of Music Row, Cash still has bragging rights to eleven
No. 1 country hits in the 1980s, from her signature ‘Seven Year Ache’ to the
Beatles remake, ‘I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party’. She earned a 1985 Grammy, and
her 1987 King’s Record Shop album is
considered a classic” (Shelbume, 2003).
In 1975, Steve Earle made his first recording on Guy Clark's Old No. 1 album, playing bass and
singing backup on "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." By the
mid-1980s, he was signed with MCA Records and his first album, Guitar Town, came out in 1986. Many critics hailed him as the missing link
between the power of rock and the passion of pure hillbilly music, and the
title track made it to No. 7 in Billboard’s Country chart in 1986. "Guitar Town" became the
highest-charting song of Earle's country career. In 1999, Country.com released "Made in
Nashville: 50 Great Albums That Showcase Music City's Diversity." Guitar
Town was on that list. With that
album, Earle enjoyed his first two of nine Grammy nominations to date. In 1987, he received one for Best Country
Male Vocalist (for Guitar Town) and
another for Best Country Song (for “Guitar Town”). The following year, he received two more
Grammy nominations. The first was for Best Country Male Vocalist (for Exit 0), and the other one was for Best
Country Song (for “Nowhere Road”). In
1996, his Grammy nomination was for Best Contemporary Folk Album (for Train A Comin'), and he was nominated
for Best Contemporary Folk Album (for El Corazón)
in 1999. In 2000, his seventh Grammy nomination was for Best Bluegrass Album
(for The Mountain). A year later, he was nominated again for Best
Contemporary Folk Album (for Transcendental
Blues), and his album Jerusalem
earned him his ninth Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
With Earle’s songwriting and fiction, his messages have been consistent
with equal portions of empathy, intelligence, and attitude. Jerusalem arrived among the wave of
rhetoric, music, commentary, and uproar that sweltered between 9/11 and the
start of second Gulf War.
“One morning Danny Goldberg, who
owns the company (Artemis Records), calls me up and says my next album should
be overtly political. This was a
change. I’ve always gotten phone calls
from record companies saying exactly the opposite, like ‘keep a lid on that
shit’. Danny thought there are some
things that needed to be said, especially now, in the world after 9/11. So I told him, ‘well, yeah, man, I can do
that’” (Earle, 2003d). And Jerusalem did just that, taking on HMOs
(the widely criticised Health Maintenance Organizations), the prison system,
Wall Street, conspiracy theories, and of course, 9/11 with “John Walker’s
“John Walker’s Blues” arrived at a
time when Nashville country music radio stations were on an endless patriotic
loop of the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier,” Darryl Worley’s “Have You
Forgotten,” Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue,” Brooks &
Dunn’s “Only in America,” Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes And Eagle
Fly,” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.”
The fact that McBride’s song dealt more with domestic violence than with
a larger patriotic theme didn’t seem to make much difference, and Tennessee
The chatter between the songs dealt
with the looming war and the rising cost of gasoline, and then the Dixie Chicks
gave a concert in London, England. Only
a handful of months had passed since their latest round of media insanity had
ended. The artists had been suing their
record label to let them out of their contract, but that long dispute had
ended, the Dixie Chicks had released a new album, 60 Minutes and other primetime news shows were running feature
segments, and then Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines took the microphone at
that London concert: “Just so you know,”
she said, “we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” (Gerome,
The backlash removed the Dixie
Chicks from the music loop, and bashing the Chicks became radio’s favorite
pastime. By the time the local radio
stations in Nashville were playing the Dixie Chicks again, the United States
troops had entered Baghdad, some of the reservists were coming home, and the
endless patriotic loop had ended.
“I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks,”
Merle Haggard said, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who
fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down
their throats for voicing an opinion. It
was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.
Whether I agree with their comments or not has no bearing” (Hag’s,
“John Walker’s Blues” never made it
on the airwaves, not so much because of the message as because country music
radio doesn’t play Steve Earle, regardless of either the song or the
message. The lack of radio play
notwithstanding, the lyrics warranted sufficient local and national media
buzz. “I’ve never worn red, white, and
blue that well. I grew up during the
Vietnam War and whenever I see a flag decal, I subconsciously superimpose the
caption: AMERICA—LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT
across the bottom stripe” (Earle, 2002b).
“John Walker's Blues”
I'm just an American boy raised
And I've seen all those kids in
the soda pop ads
But none of 'em looked like me
So I started lookin' around for a
light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that
made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God
If my daddy could see me now –
chains around my feet
He don't understand that
sometimes a man
Has got to fight for what he
And I believe God is great, all
praise due to him
And if I should die, I'll rise up
to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon
We came to fight the Jihad and
our hearts were pure and strong
As death filled the air, we all
offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan,
some secret not revealed
Now they're draggin' me back with
my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
Earle wrote this song “from the
perspective of the so-called ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh, or, as the
singer states, ‘a twenty-year-old kid who hadn’t eaten for a week’” (“Earle’s
blues on film”, Rollingstone.com, 2003).
The following lyrics reveal the first person point of view and the
empathy the writer shows for the subject matter: “I'm just an American boy
raised on MTV/ And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/ But none of
'em looked like me.”
“All I was doing was trying to
humanize him,” Earle said. “John Walker
Lindh deserves to be judged as a human being—not a poster child for what we’re
afraid of at the moment. That
scapegoating has always been dangerous” (Earle, 2003c).
And in the songs, the chorus remains
strong and balanced between the East and West, presenting the same message
(reverence for God) in both English and Arabic with, “A shadu la ilaha illa
Allah/There is no God but God.”
In addition, Earle explores the Man
Versus Nature attitude with the lines, “If my daddy could see me now—chains
around my feet/He don’t understand that sometimes a man/Has got to fight for
what he believes”. These lines and this
attitude creates a sort of subliminal common frame of reference with the
The true weakness of the song is
that the lyrics are so honest and raw that the masses, the general public,
would never get to benefit from them since no radio is going to play this song,
and the message will not get out to the public.
Other than the true Steve Earle devotee, who would ever hear this
message and benefit from it?
Beyond the flag waving and saluting
of the mainstream music and the lyrical messages of artists like Earle,
something else—a calm musical exhale—has been going on in country music,
especially with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
“Politics are not good art,” Rosanne
Cash said. “Too much politics in art
comes out of self-righteousness or bitterness.
And who gives a shit about that?
Steve Earle, Springsteen, and my dad are among the few artists who can
mix the two without affecting the integrity of their work. It’s organic.
They tend to step into character rather than rail against the system. And if it resonates, it can change the world”
While the song “September When It
Comes” off Cash’s album Rules of Travel
was not political in nature, Cash said that she asked her father to sing part
of it with her: “I said, ‘Dad, I have
this song I’d love for you to sign on.’
And he said, ‘Well, I have to read the lyrics first.’ He wanted to make sure that what he was
saying was something that was authentic to him” (Cash, 2003). This is the sort of thoughtfulness required
in a time of war, especially among a nation’s artists.
And above all the noise, there’s
Merle Haggard with his political song, “That’s the News.” “The new song chides the media for focusing
on celebrity news . . .while fighting continues in Iraq. Haggard sings, ‘Suddenly it’s over, the war
is finally done/Soldiers in the desert sand still clinging to a gun/No one is
the winner and everyone must lose/Suddenly the war’s over, that’s the
news.’ The song ends with the lines,
‘Politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues/Suddenly the war is over,
that’s the news’” (Gerome, 2003, 1D).
Earle’s structural approach to
songwriting and fiction writing are similar:
“I call them (albums) records because that’s how I approach them—as
documents with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Earle, 2002c). And that approach must have helped him as he
created and assembled his 2001 collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses.
According to Earle, the book took
shape over several years. “There’s a
story in here called ‘Wheeler County’ in which I actually in a really grandiose
moment sometime in the late 1980s decided I was going to write a novel. And I started it, but what I failed to take
into consideration was that I had a pretty time-consuming drug habit at that
point in my life and I pawned a lot of stuff, and one of the things I pawned
was the computer that it was in, and I never backed it up, so that was the end
of my first prose writing career. I got in the trouble that I got into, and I
ended up getting locked up. And I got
clean, and I discovered that I had what seemed to me to be an unlimited amount
of energy and time because I didn’t have to wake up in the morning and find
$500 worth of dope everyday. I was
already writing songs, but anyone who writes anything fears a blank page more
than anything else on Earth, and it was just an exercise more than anything
else. I don’t even think that I really
intended them for publication. The first
thing I did was reconstruct that story ,‘Wheeler County,’ from memory and discovered
that it was only a short story after all.
And then I wrote another one and then another one and then a friend of
mine, Alice Randall, wrote The Wind Done
Gone…and she had three or four of my stories, and she gave them to her
editor who was at another publisher at the time, and he was interested in
them. At that point in time, it sort of
conceptually became a book. And it took
six years to write 11 stories” (Earle, 2003a).
Taken as a whole, Earle’s collection reflects his history and
demographics. Eight of his eleven
stories deal with characters in motion: travel.
All of his stories deal with the external life. His protagonists are doing things and going
places, his characters don’t internalize how they feel about what they are
doing or where they are going. All of
Earle’s protagonists are male, and the gender influences the subject matter.
The themes and causes that he champions in his lyrics resonate in his fiction,
including race relations, the death penalty, the working class and working
poor, Vietnam, and the idea of being on the road.
“One of those stories was adapted
from (the song) ‘Taneytown,’ which is told from the perspective of a
22-year-old, retarded black man,” Earle said.
“The premise is that there are rednecks everywhere, not just in the
South. The song came first, but then I
went back and reworked the lyrics after I wrote the story. I fleshed out the characters so much in the
story that I was able to do a better job on the lyrics when I rewrote it”
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
To see what I could see
My mama told me never go
But I'm almost 22 years old
Sometimes I fear this holler swollow me
She ran off to Gettysburg
Went off with that new beau of hers
I snuck off after dark
Long way down the county road
Stars were bright
The moon was low
Down to where the black top highway starts
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to see what I could see
I could see everybody stared at me
You'd think that they ain't never seen
A colored boy before
They chunked at me
Called me names
They'd have whipped me sure but the sheriff came
I slipped off through the dry goods store
I ran down Division Street
Some of them boys followed me
Down to the railroad track
Four of them and I cain't fight
But I had my old Randall knife
I cut that boy and I never did look back
Cross the fields and woods I run
Like a bullet from a rabbit gun
Back home to my bed
Ma came in from Gettysburg
Her and that new beau of hers
Boy you look like hell" was all she said
Month went by without a word
Somebody down the holler heard
About that boy they hung
He begged those men to spare his life
But I dropped my bloody Randall knife
He picked it up so they thought he was the one
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
I ain't goin' back there anymore
The story line of the lyrics and the
short story run parallel with an important difference: the longer form, as
provided through the short story, allowed the author to include additional
details, which helped create more empathy for his protagonist in terms of his
race and mentally ill status.
“I took a risk writing the story and
a risk doing this song, and I don’t claim to have done it well. . .But just
taking the chance made it worthwhile for me” (Earle, 1997).
With the lyrics, race is referred to
only once through the following lines: “I could see everybody stared at
me/You'd think that they ain't never seen/A colored boy before.”
With the short story, Earle’s escalated the use of his vocabulary by
using the “N” word about twenty times throughout, something that the book
reviews in the mainstream media tended not to address. In the short story, Earle is able to contrast
the protagonist’s use of the word as a part of his everyday vocabulary and how
the word is used in anger towards him:
called a nigger all my life, by all them Mangrums an’ ol’ man Simpson, an’ jus’
about everybody else up in the holler, even james, an’ he a nigger too. It don’t bother me none. But the way them Taneytown boys say it, it
sound. . . different. Sound nasty
or somethin’. It make me feel real
bad. Kinda sickly an’ scared inside. Now they all hollerin’ ‘bout nigger this an’
nigger that an’ I’m powerful scared.
Scared enough, I reckon, to unglue my feet an’ take off runnin’. (Earle, 2001, p.83)
In addition, the author blends the use of the profanity with the way
people in the story treat the protagonist, allowing for greater impact. As the main character is moving through
Taneytown, he makes the following observations:
all my life did I see so many people.
They’s all kinda people. They’s
tall people an’ short people an’ old people an’ lil’ chidren an’ mostly they
white, but a few of ‘em niggers like me.
An’ everybody busy runnin’ here and there an’ in a great hurry an’ if
anybody pay me any mind at all, I cain’t tell.
Some just bump right into me, like to knock me down in the street
just keep on goin’, like I ain’t even there.
Make me feel teeny, tiny, an’ kinda lonesome an’ I start missin’ Mama
an’ James a lil’ bit, but I just keep on goin’. (Earle, 2001, p.81)
The mental condition of the
protagonist is a key bit of detail that could affect the way that some
listeners and readers respond to this song and short story.
With the lyrics, the protagonist’s
mental status is not overtly addressed.
A different sort of relationship between the protagonist and his mother
is indicated in the lines, “My mama told me never go/But I'm almost 22 years
old/Sometimes I fear this holler swollow me.” And later in the song, the
first-person narrator says that “I snuck off after dark.” This information indicates that there is a
dominate/submissive relationship. Even
though the person is 22 years old, his mother tells him what not to do, and
when he does something, he indicates that he’s sneaking off. The interpretation of this is left to the
listener. Without the injection of the
mental status, the song’s message is seen exclusively through the prism of
race. With the short story, the mental
status is a huge part of the story, with numerous references. The first appears on page one,
Mangrum, the one that’s ‘bout my age, use to say how niggers is good luck an’
how I’m double lucky on account of I’m a little slow. When folks say how I’m slow that don’t mean
runnin’ or nothin’. James say I’m about
the fastest thing in this holler when it comes to runnin’ an’ summin’, such
stuff as that. They just mean I’m
a little slow in the head. James say
retard but if anybody else call me that, he’ll whup they ass. That’s on account of he’s my brother. (Earle,
the mental illness is, at least, on equal footing with race, and this new prism
helps increase the empathy that the reader feels towards the protagonist. The protagonist’s mental handicap allows him to get away with a
gritty vocabulary that other characters would not survive, including such words
as “a retard,” “Injun,” and “nigger.”
The result is a much more authentic and honest representation of a
people and time in America’s history.
that the point of literature is to represent different people with different
points of view, in conflict,” Wallin said. “If we’re not allowed to do that, we’re not
really practicing literature. More and
more, there’s pressure not to use certain words, or maybe not even to take up
the point of view of a black person. I
don’t think we can give up our belief in literature and our belief that it
broadens people. It gives people
empathy, and if you stop telling stories about the guy over the fence, you’re
gonna end up shooting at him. We have
real mission that tells stories that empathize with other people. In fiction, there’s a difference between the
character, the narrator, and the writer.
The author is not in the story, and the author may be writing the story
to show you things that the author disapproves of. These are just the elementary facts of what
we’re doing” (Wallin, 2001).
* * *
Note: In the second part of his article, to appear in Issue 3, the
Spring 2005 edition of Chapter&Verse,
Roy Burkhead continues his
examination of the lyrics and short stories of Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash,
including their views and approaches on such topics as the death penalty in the
United States, their empathy toward those in opposition to the second Iraq War,
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