The Short Stories and Lyrics of Two Contemporary Writers: Steve Earle & Rosanne Cash

Part 2

Part 1

Roy L. Burkhead
C&V
Spring 2005

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 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.

The first part of this article appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue of Chapter&Verse, and Jason Gross, editor of the famed webzine Perfect Sound Forever, selected it as one of the best pieces of music writing for 2004, placing it in the top category of "Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year”. According to Gross, "though it plays up the romantic notion of Earle and Cash as commercial outsiders, this does a brilliant job of delving into their worldviews, via songs” (Visit: http://rockcritics.com/jasongross2004_intro.html).

Part two continues with an exploration of the two artists, their lyrics, prose, and views on such subjects as the death penalty in the United States and America’s Second War in Iraq. SW

 

 

 

* * *

        “Texas has been a key player in the death penalty since it was re-instated in 1976.   Between then and now, the State of Virginia had the next highest count of 87.  Since that date, Texas has put 290 people to death.  The majority of states, including Texas, favor death by lethal injection; although, the electric chair has been used in 150 executions since 1976.  Hanging, the gas chamber, and firing squads have been used in the more than eight hundred executions since that date.  In 2002, nearly half of the executions in the United States took place in Texas” (The Life of David Gale, 2003).

* * *

My main objection to the death penalty isn’t about trying to save anybody on death row” 

 (Earle, 2003, p. 35)

My objection to the death penalty is spiritual, not political.  I have a political objection to it, in that I don’t think any government should have the power of life and death.  But that’s based on the fact that in a democracy, the government is us.  If the government kills somebody, I’m killing somebody.  And I object to the damage that does to my spirit.”—Steve Earle

(Nance, 2002, pp. 18-21)

* * *

        Empathy for all those associated with, and impacted by, the carrying out of the death penalty is a theme that has influenced Earle’s lyrics, prose, and now a play.  The subject matter first appeared in his music on The Hard Way album with the song “Billy Austin,” a tune that explored the feelings and point of view a murderer on death row through such lyrics as, “but my trial was over quickly/And then the long hard wait began/Court appointed lawyer/Couldn’t look me in the eye/He just stood up and closed his briefcase/When they sentenced me to die.” and “So when the preacher comes to get me/And they shave off all my hair/Could you take that long walk with me/Knowing hell is waitin’ there/Could you pull that switch yourself sir/With a sure and steady hand/Could you still tell youself/That you’re better than I am” (Earle, 1990).

        Earle doesn’t make excuses for the characters in his songs.  They are who they are; they did what they did: they’re guilty.  As a result, he’s not on the defensive as a storyteller.  He’s just telling the tale, allowing the listener to react as he or she will.  Specifically, “Billy Austin” was a catalyst the catapulted Earle further into a movement that he was already passionate about. 

        Since the release of this song, Earle “got regular requests from anti-death-penalty activist groups to perform at rallies and vigils…and he has sung and spoken at abolitionist events, but he’s also washed dishes, directed traffic, taken out the trash.  He has slept in churches, gymnasiums and community centers, not his usual form of accommodation” (Nance, 2002, pp. 18-21).  According to Earle, “Texas has become internationally known more for the death penalty than it is for cowboys and the Alamo…Go to Italy and say Texas, and they’re immediately talking about the death penalty.  The Coliseum in Rome is lit up every time someone’s executed in Texas—only in Texas” (Nance, 2002, pp. 18-21).

        “Growing up in San Antonio, Earle first became interested in the death penalty in 1963, when his father wrote a letter to the governor to protest the handling of a capital case” (Nance, 2002, pp. 18-21).  And as Earle elaborated in an interview early in 2003, “My opposition to the death penalty probably goes back to reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the first time as a kid.  That book does a really good job when it gets down to the execution—showing how it dehumanizes everyone involved in the process” (Earle, 2003, p. 35).

        Earle had an opportunity to explore the greater impact of the death penalty while writing “Ellis Unit One,” a song he wrote specifically for the movie, Dead Man Walking.  Taking the point of view of a prison guard, Earle explores the emotional impact of an execution on those carrying out the sentence with the lines, “Well, I’ve seen ‘em fight like lions, boys/I’ve seen ‘em go like lambs/And I’ve helped to drag ‘em when they could not stand.” At the same time, Earle empathizes with family members as he writes, “And I’ve heard their mamas cryin’ when they heard that big door slam/And I’ve seen the victim’s family holdin’ hands” (Earle, 2002).

        By this time, Earle was interacting more and more with groups and individuals involved in the movement.  According to Earle, “Dead Man Walking led to meeting people who worked with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Journey of Hope from Violence to Healing—which were mindblowers.  These are people whose family members have been murdered and still they oppose the death penalty” (Earle, 2003, p. 35).

        Additionally, people on death row started writing to Earle, including Jonathan Wayne Nobles.  In October of 1998, Nobles was executed by lethal injection for stabbing two women to death in 1986 while high on drugs.  He asked Earle to attend his execution.  In the weeks prior to the execution, Earle visited him repeatedly, and in the final four days, Earle spent long hours with him, even helping him plan his funeral (Nance, 2002, pp. 18-21). “All he wanted was to have one person there that didn’t hate him,” Earle said  (Orr, 1999, 1F).

        The artistic outcome of this experience was the short story “Witness,” the play Karla, and the song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song).” “It (the song) was part of a process that I’m probably still going through. It’s not a political song.  My other death penalty songs are.  They deal with my opposition to the death penalty as an idea.  This is simply me processing the fact that I witnessed a horrific act” (Earle, 2002b).

 

“Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)”

(Steve Earle)

 

The warden said he'd mail my letter

The chaplain's waitin' by the door

Tonight we'll cross the yard together

Then they can't hurt me anymore

 

I am going over yonder

Where no ghost can follow me

There's another place beyond here

Where I'll be free I believe

 

Give my radio to Johnson

Thibodeaux can have my fan

Send my Bible home to Mama

Call her every now and then

 

I suppose I got it comin'

I can't ever pay enough

All my rippin' and a runnin'

I hurt everyone I loved

 

The world'll turn around without me

The sun'll come up in the east

Shinin' down on all of them that hate me

I hope my goin' brings 'em peace

 

        Empathizing with the protagonist, Earle is stating as simply as he can what the person on death row is going through during his last moments.  The murderer isn’t asking for forgiveness or claiming any internal change at the end.  He did what he did, and now it’s time for him to face his consequences, as emphasized in the lines, “I suppose I got it comin'/I can't ever pay enough/All my rippin' and a runnin'/I hurt everyone I loved.”  What’s interesting in these specific lines is the author’s ability to empathize with murderer enough to allow him to feel love and regret, expressing it in a genuine way.

        Earle extends this empathy to his fiction, as in the short story “Witness.”  This short story is told from the point of view of Gordon Elliot, a corporate attorney whose wife (Joan) was murdered.  Her accused and convicted killer is Andres Camacho, an illegal alien from El Salvador who was working as a gardener and landscaper for the Elliots.  Andres is on death row, and his execution is the arc of this story.  What the reader doesn’t discover until the end of the short story is that Gordon was the actual murderer.  And in a way, Gordon’s deception is another prism through which Earle explores this story.  This allows the author to apply empathy for nearly every point of  view in the story, regardless of situation and how the reader may feel about any character or that person’s participating—direct and indirect—in this execution.

        The lethal injection itself is as it has been designed: quick.  The first drug is pentobarbital, rendering the individual unconscious.  The next drug is pancurium bromide.  This stops the breathing.  The last drug is potassium chloride, which stops the heart.  “The whole cocktail costs the State of Texas $86.08 per elimination” (The Life of David Gale, 2003).

        In terms of what Earle was most unprepared for as he witnessed the execution of Jonathan Wayne Nobles, he said was, “my own empathy for the people that had to participate in that execution.  Jon was really inceredibly well prepared, and it was hard to watch.  He was genuinely remorseful.  And, you know, he was just trying to die the best that he could.  But the other people—I don’t know where it came from; I didn’t see anything from them that would normally evoke empathy—but it just dawned on me that what I was looking at was people protecting a relatively low-paying job with halfway decent benefits.  It (the prison system) is the only industry in Huntsville, Texas” (Earle, 2002b).

        As Earle empathized with the guards and those involved in the execution, a piece of telling detail is the fact that as the visitors waited and prepared for the execution in the guards’ break room, the place where employees go traditionally to relax and escape their job for a few moments in the day, and the death imagery is everywhere:

        Finally, he (Gordon Elliot) was ushered into a bare-bones kind of a lounge, normally used by prison employees for coffee breaks.  One step further, he thought to himself, and he would have passed out cold on the floor.

        The harsh fluorescent lighting reflecting off the freshly painted off-white surfaces cast a surreal pall over the room.  Inside there was a Coke machine, some uncomfortable-looking institutional furniture, and for this occasion one of those long, heavy-duty Formica-top folding tables covered in a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth.  On the table were two large coffee urns (regular and decaf), an assortment of store-bought cookies, and a plate of pimento cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off.  The coffee was going fast, but no one except the wire service reporter was eating anything.  (Earle, 2001, p. 176)

       

        The death imagery is packed into this small amount of narrative with such nouns, verbs, adjectives and phrases as ushered, bare-bones, surreal pall, the color red, and the urns. The guards aren’t eating in a room specifically designed for them to eat in order to keep some sort of boundary between their normal, everyday lives and the days on which they are required to help kill someone.  In another passage, Earle expresses empathy for other law enforcement officers involved in the process through the following passage:

Gordon looked around the room.  Besides the two reporters there were a handful of correctional officers and state police standing around.  Occasionally one of them would look Gordon’s way, but other then that there was no attempt to make any other sort of contact

                                                                    (Earle, 2001, p. 178).

 

        In addition, Earle shows the warden an equal portion of empathy by revealing how the warden must behave in order to make it through the execution.  As Warden Larkin addresses those present for the execution, he has a down home mannerism, using such lines as “Folks, I’m Sam Larkin, the warden” (Earle, 2001, p. 187).  And a page later as the warden prepares to take everyone through the procedures, Earle offers the following transitional passage:

Suddenly, Warden Larkin’s entire demeanor changed.

“Now, let me tell you a little bit about what you can expect to happen here tonight.”

He looked down at his watch. (Earle, 2001, p. 188)

 

After a couple pages of instruction from the warden, Earle brings the warden back to a more…personable tone with:

The warden went on down his customary list of offenses punishable by removal and then suddenly the military demeanor dissolved and was replaced once again by the familiar funeral director’s smile and barely audible monotone.

“We have a job to do here today.  That is to enforce the letter of the law and the will of the people of this state.  With your cooperation we will accomplish that task as quickly and as painlessly as possible.  Thank you for your attention.”

Warden Larkin turned and exited the room…(Earle, 2001, p. 191)

 

Earle easily creates empathy for Camacho through the execution scene.  The information is delivered in an intelligent way.  First, the below information is delivered to the reader.  Then, as Gordon leaves the prison, the true murderer is revealed, leaving the reader to ponder the murder of an innocent man.

He mercifully turned away.  Staring straight up at the ceiling, he took a long, ragged breath, closed his eyes and began saying a Hail Mary in Spanish.  Gordon noticed that Chaplin Meeks was resting his right hand on Camacho's leg just below the knee.  For some reason that he couldn't explain, the contact offended him.  Now, more than ever, Gordon wanted the whole horrible business over with.  Finished. 

What Gordon didn't know was that the Hail Mary was the signal that Camacho had agreed to so that Warden Larkin knew he was ready, and Gordon had missed the warden's subtle hand signal to the unseen executioner behind the one-way glass. Therefore, he had no way of knowing that the poison had already made its way down the plastic tubing and was racing through Andreas Camacho's body.

        “…ahora y en la hora de la muerte nuestra…”

Andy's prayer was interrupted by a sound from his own lips, a low-pitched bark, a startling, incongruous sound, like a small child with whooping cough, as the air was suddenly forced from his lungs and his head pitched forward until his chin lodged on his chest.  It was as if an invisible anvil had been dropped on his chest from a great height.  It was much more violent than Gordon had ever imagined it would be.  He had convinced himself that this would be different somehow.  On paper it was efficient and clinical. Instead there was the unmistakable sense that he was witnessing a soul being brutally and unnaturally ripped from a human body. (Earle, 2001, p. 195)

 

        “The Witness” with its persecution of the poor is an appropriate window to the remaining stories in the collection.  These stories deal with working-class people striving towards a better life (“Billy The Kid”) and with the working poor, who are either trying to survive (“The Red Suitcase”) or dealing with consequences of drugs and crime (“Jaguar Dance,” “Doghouse Roses,” and “A Eulogy of Sorts”).

        The working poor has long been a serious topic of Earle’s lyrics, starting with his first album Guitar Town and his hit, “Good Ole Boy:”  “I was born in the land of plenty/Now there ain’t enough/Getting’ cold/I’ve been told/Nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good ole boy” (Earle, 1986).

        Earle elaborated in February 2003 interview:  ‘Everything that’s being thrown at us right now is completely and totally geared towards marketing to not even middle class people but upper middle class people, and it’s kind of frightening.  We’ve forgotten about a blue collar segment in America.  Those people are completely and totally disenfranchised and completely and totally forgotten about.  It’s like, ‘Fuck off and go work at McDonalds.’ And that’s kind of scary to me” (Earle, 2003, p. 35).

        “Earle claims to be a borderline Marxist whose politics have gotten both more simple and more radical with age and experience” (Gray, 1998).

        “I cut my teeth on the books [Eldridge Cleaver’s] Soul on Ice and The Communist Manifesto back when I was playing coffee-houses,” says Earle.  “I don’t understand the political process, but I just know that it’s about money and always has been” (Morse, 1998, p. 30).  “I believe everything Karl Marx said about economics.  I think the biggest mistake he made is he forgot that you’ll never make a revolution with the people by ignoring poor people’s spirituality because it’s all we got” (Earle, 2003, p. 35).  “I see no reason for anyone to go hungry in the richest country in the world; There is absolutely no excuse for it.  There is no excuse for everyone not to have the medical attention they deserve.  This big argument about health care shouldn’t even be happening.  We’ve managed to raise an entire generation of kids who think you’re destitute if you make less than $80,000 a year.  It’s greed” (Gray, 1998).

        Earle’s name is but one on a long list of country music artists who write, sing, and take action for what they believe in.  Ricky Van Shelton, Gary Morris, Reba McEntire, Minnie Pearle, and Lorrie Morgan have all championed such causes as cancer, hunger, ataxia, alcoholism, and so on.  The list is huge.  One name that must be included is that of Rosanne Cash.

        Early last decade in Music City, Cash was the head of the Earth Communications Office (ECO), a group dedicated to environmental awareness.  She has sung out for world peace and against nuclear arms.  And her music has addressed domestic violence and child abuse (Oermann, 1990, p. 1J).

        And more recently, there’s the second Iraq War.

        Cash “appeared at a press conference to support an effort spearheaded by David Byne and Russell Simmons called “Musicians United to Win Without War.”  She also signed a full-page protest in the New York Times, together with Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, along with a bunch of hip-hop and world music artists” (Alterman, 2003).

        “…I got enormous backlash from speaking out against going to war, you know.  Just from—I don’t know.  Just from people sending e-mails to my Web site or writing me.  And it wasn’t people saying in a very thoughtful manner, ‘I disagree with you, and here’s why.’  It was people calling me every name in the book and being very abusive about it.  And at first I wrote some of them back, and I was respectful and I said, ‘Well, here’s why I believe this, this, and here’s why I think this.’  But it didn’t work.  You know, they didn’t want to have a dialogue” (Cash, 2003).

        Just after starting work on her current album Rules of Travel back in 1998, Cash discovered that she was pregnant and that a polyp shut down her vocal chords, preventing her from singing.  According to Cash, that period of near verbal silence in her life helped her to find her voice.

        “My songwriting has definitely been changed by this and mainly because I didn’t write any songs while I had lost my voice.  And I started writing a lot of prose. I wrote for New York Magazine, and I wrote for the New York Times magazine and for Oxford American.  And even for Martha Stewart Living, I wrote a piece on lullabies.  And I edited a book of songwriters’ prose (Songs Without Rhyme), and it changed me as a songwriter, definitely.  It gave me a wider sandbox to play in.  As a songwriter, you’re bound to melody, you’re bound to a rhyme scheme, you’re bound to a three- or four-minute format.  And usually because I’m a very structured person, I really loved that.  I love knowing the perimeters and setting up the internal rules of each song and then just staying in that.  It feels safe, and you know, I have all the freedom within that box.  But when writing prose, you know, it’s a lot of rope to hang yourself with, but it’s also a lot of freedom and relief.  There’s no rhyme.  There’s no melody, but it’s very subtle.  You know, you can go on as long as you want.  You don’t have to stop after three minutes.  So, I brought some of that freedom back to songwriting, I think.  At least it feels like I did” (Cash, 2003).

        Cash has said that “it kind of turns me off when artists get on their soapboxes.  Art does not give you a better insight into politics” (Alterman, 2003), and she insists that “I still hesitate to take big political stances in songwriting.  How it all relates to individuals is what interests me” (Gardner, 2003).

        Cash’s opinions on art and politics are reflected in her lyrics.  When her latest album Rules of Travel appeared with a song that involved the Middle East (“Western Wall”), neither guns nor politicians existed.  Instead, she went internal and concentrated on acceptance, as illustrated in the following lyrics:  “I stand here by the Western Wall/maybe a little of that wall/stands inside of us all/I shove my prayers in the cracks/I got nothing to lose/No one to answer back/All these years I’ve brought up for review/I wasn’t taught this, but I learned something new/I had to answer a distant call/At the Western Wall.” 

        “I went to Israel a few times in my youth, and I remember standing in front of the Wailing Wall—I loved the whole idea of writing a prayer on a tiny piece of paper and putting it into a crack in the wall, and believing that someone or something is going to receive that prayer.  It’s a powerful idea” (“The Making of Rules of Travel”, 2003).

        The songs off Rules of Travel are a reflection of Cash’s entire career, in that she uses the power of her music (and prose) and her lyrics to empathize with humanity.  The subjects of her songs have included the lonely, the abused, those surviving divorce, the mistreated, and, certainly, the aging: those coming to terms with their humanity, as exposed in another song from Rules of Travel, “September When It Comes.”

        “Over simple acoustic guitar picking, Rosanne describes a young child in bed, waiting for a father who was too often away from home; she then admits that ‘the baby became me.’  As a melancholy keyboard figure comes in under the guitar, she confesses that she locked those feelings away for years, and only now, in the autumn of her parents’ lives, can she unlock them again.  Then Johnny Cash’s voice comes in, resembling his daughter’s not so much in timbre as in its deliberate, dignified phrasing.  Sounding craggier than ever, he acknowledges his own aging: ‘I can no longer run/I cannot be who I was then/In a way, I never was’” (Himes, 2003).

        Cash’s empathy has given a voice to the silent, as in “This World,” “a song that uses a chilling child abuse case to urge everyone to see all of humanity as their concern” (Oermann, 1990, p. 1J), through such lyrics as “I read about this baby/She got beat up by her dad/She was nine months old and he was a full/grown man/She may have been learning how to crawl/And he put a fist in her face/And the doctor said this baby’s gone/She can’t be replaced” (Cash, 1990).

        “It’s truth,” Rosanne Cash says of “This World.”  “I did read about this baby last year and I did go down to the hospital and try to see this baby.  I was so disturbed.  I kept crying at night, couldn’t sleep.  What is a person supposed to do about something like this?” (Oermann, 1990, p. 1J).

        Throughout her career, Cash has steadfastly backed not only women but strong women.
        “Cash is part of a new breed of country singers.  She’s true to the field’s hard-core emotion, but resists its clichés.  Unwilling to settle for the country stereotype of the helpless woman, she is as concerned with standing up for herself as simply standing by her man, as illustrated in a line from one of the album’s (Seven Year Ache) key tunes:  “How can it all look so right and feel so wrong?/I’ll play the victim for you, honey, but not for long” (Hilburn, 1981). 

        “On her fine, hard-edged second album, Seven Year Ache,  Cash takes tunes by men and about men and switches the gender, crooning—in her unmannered, wafting tenor—all those plots about leaving lovers and getting the urge to light out for the territory.  Cash renders these time-tired male themes as women’s work, and the result is an exhilarating country-rock record.  Whether she’s turning Steve Forbert’s “What Kinda Guy” into “What Kinda Girl” or claiming Keith Syke’s tough-guy imagery in “Rainin’” as her own, the singer remains pleasingly aloof” (Tucker, 1981).

        In 2001, 14 artists used the lyrics of one of their own songs as a starting point for a piece of prose, and Cash was both included in that collection and edited the entire work, Songs Without Rhyme.  Cash’s contribution was a short story entitled, “bells, ink, sand and roses,” printed alongside her song, “bells, ink, sand and roses.”

        There is a questioning of one’s identity, a desire to fill something missing in both the lyrics and the prose.  With the song, Cash says, “bells and roses/fill up the silence/and the place where he once lay.”  With the short story, the missing elements are senses.  The story is set on Bellarosa Utone’s birthday on the day she was born in 2107 and then on 2149.  She had no father.  Instead, she was genetically created using only her mother’s information.  Whether she is a clone is not specifically addressed in the story, but the side effects of her birth is the creation of five new senses:  1) the ability to hear color, 2) the ability to see sound, 3) the ability to smell memory, 4) the ability to perceive emotional content by contact with objects and rooms associated with another person, and 5) the ability to see inside one’s own body.  Apparently, there are others like Bellarosa, and they are known as multisensates.  Due to her altered states, “subject must be indoctrinated from early childhood in the construction of internal filters.  Subject must also avoid intense emotional experiences of all kinds.  Some multisensates find that it is healthier for them to choose a solitary life, forgoing love and romantic relationships, as the normal physical and emotional components of love and sex will prove to be too overwhelming, in a very literal sense” (Cash, 1986, p. 43). 

        The rest of the short story deals with the adult Bellarosa as she decides to break this protocol, taking the reader to the very moment: “She still had another few seconds to react, to stop the activation, to draw her filters up with her breath, but instead, she drew the platter to her and bend her head over it, as if to inhale the story is was going to tell her” (Cash, 1986, p. 47).  And the rest of the story is the backstory of the plate and how it came to be in her possession from an art dealer in Munich.  Bellarosa had purchased many items, and the plate was one small piece in the collection.

        Bodies of Water, Cash’s first collection of short stories stands in contrast to Earle’s short pieces.  Here, while Cash’s characters are in motion, too, their trips are internal.  The collection is built around several female characters and explores these women at critical points in their lives: giving birth, questioning work choices, losing love, and facing middle age.  The stories’ themes of self-forgiveness, freedom from delusion, and gaining power from the past are those frequently purveyed in her lyrics.

        “All of the book is based in some part on her life…Cash lays a lot of her inner life on the table, but remains at ease with the vulnerability” (Roland).  This may explain why the protagonists in seven of Cash’s nine stories have no names, and eight of them are in the first person, creating an intimacy between the writer and the reader and adding to the reader’s potential tendency to think that he or she is reading a non-fiction piece. 

        “But the book is not a diary,” Cash has said.  “It hopefully is a work of art, or at least a work of mild literature” (Roland, 1996, p. 3D).

Whether intentional or accidental, Cash’s respect for the rhythms of literature is evident through her writing by using the first person, present tense to create intimacy and immediacy.  In Shakespeare's King John (Rolfe, 1908, p. 88), Constance says, "Grief fills the room up of my absent child/Lie in his bed, walks up and down with me/Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words/Remembers me of all his gracious parts/Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form."  In "We Are Born," Cash's fist person narrator says, "This pain fills the room, rattles the windows, drips down the walls, crushes me back into my pillows, dampens the sheets, and creates an acrid smell in my nostril" (Cash, 1996, p. 11).  Whether Cash ever read King John is known only to her, but that does not diminish the power of the action verbs, the repetition, and first person interaction with the power of life--one gone, the other arriving--cannot be denied.

        A literary ode for children is another aspect of this collection of short stories.  “Bodies of Water,” “We Are Born,” “Shelly’s Voices,” “A Week at the Gore,” “Dinner,” and “The Last Day of the Year” all deal with children in some way.  Cash has three children.

        “One thing that was kind of shocking to me when I became a mother is how much passion children stirred up…I thought that that kind of depth of feeling was reserved for romance, and romantic relationships, but I found that children were incredibly provocative and caused you so much anguish and so much joy, and taught you so much, and stirred like the deepest recesses of passion.  And I just never anticipated that” (Roland, 1996, p. 3D).

        With “We Are Born,” the author takes the reader along the journey of childbirth, from the first contractions to the delivery, but there is a twist.  The lady is in labor for a long time, as the baby is stuck.  Once out, Cash said the following:

“The poor battered creature is as ravaged as I am.  She has been squeezed so tightly inside me that all the blood vessels in her right eye have burst, and it is brilliant red where it should be white.  She is swollen and bruised, and the most luminous being I have ever seen.” (Cash, 1996, p. 15)

 

        Looking ahead, both Earle and Cash say that they’re at work on their next bit of prose.

        According to Earle, he’s “working on a novel right now.  It’s called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive at this point, and it’s about a fictional character who’s based on a person who really existed, who may or may not have been a doctor who was traveling with Hank Williams when he died.  I’d been working on it for a while, but then stopped to finish the play I wrote, Karla [about famed Texas Death Row inmate Karla Faye Tucker].  That’s finished; we put it on up here in Nashville, and it did well; the reviews were great.  We’re working on putting it on in L.A. this summer, and probably Chicago after that” (Moreau, 2003).

        As for Cash, she’s finishing up a non-fiction work entitled, 44 Stories.  “It is a recollection—‘I hate the word memoir,’ she declares—about her formative years as an aspiring musician.  ‘I’m not very far into it, but the first chapter is in 1976 when I moved to London and how that set me up as a songwriter and formed my later adulthood’”  (Shelbume, 2003).

 

* * *

        “I don’t see myself as a political writer, but I don’t make any bones about having an agenda,” Earle said (Nance, 2002, p. 19).

* * *

        Singles, pairs, trios, and quartets whispered secret songs and spotted the landscape, patrolled as it was with white girls selling soda pop and black boys pedaling snow cones.  Old Marlboro cigarette butts flattened to the earth from previous performances had nothing to do with the smell of tobacco sifting in the air.  The far off sound of electric guitars and drums pushed out of the seemingly tiny speakers on the distant stage, which existed beyond 50 rows of red and blue seats.  Backs of heads bobbed up and down in rhythm, and small figures walked around the stage doing small things.  And finally, a voice blended with the notes:

        “Look at yah/Yeah, take a look in the mirror now tell me what you see/Another satisfied customer in the front of the line for the American dream/I remember when we was both out on the boulevard/Talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues/Nowadays it’s letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our taxes/Is the best that we can do/Come on.” (Earle, 2002c)

 

Above the stage, the corporate world intruded on the tunes with mammoth signs that glowed with words and slogans: Party Place, Dodge-RAM Tuff, Chrysler, and Jeep.  Advertisers followed the patrons into the bathrooms.  With the audience captive, blurbs hanging above urinals sold job placement services, CDs, and Harley Davidsons.  And there was a question to be asked: “Everyone has an HIV status; do you know yours?”

        “Look around/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/Yeah, I know, that sucks—that your HMO/Ain’t doin’ what you thought it would do/But everybody’s gotta die sometime and we can’t save everybody/it’s the best that we can do.” (Earle, 2002c)

 

A woman announced that she was “making a b-line for the…cocktail-age” as she headed towards the Old No 7 Jack Daniels Lounge just on the backside of the grass, and her female companion slurped on a $7 draft beer.  Another woman sat on the ground, listened to the music, and sipped two dollars worth of margarita out of a $15 ridiculous glass, a souvenir that would not be saved.  And there, among the butts, class oozed and intruded with rented brown seats that unfolded and hovered above the dirt and dying grass.  They were stacked up in rows as if order existed with people striving to be above the song that was playing:

        “Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago/Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay/Yeah, well maybe that wasn’t exactly what they was thinkin’/Version six-point-oh of the American way/But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club/To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through/Yeah, I realize that ain’t exactly democratic, but its either them or us and/And it’s the best we can do.” (Earle, 2002c)

 

Dozens of empty red and blue seats existed, and many a green patch remained unclaimed.  And it was easy to wonder just who was paying for the gas in the tour busses and keeping the electric flowing to the guitars.

“Yeah, passionately conservative/It’s the best we can do.” (Earle, 2002c)

A red moon ascended; it was full and glowing, and two monster screens at each side of the stage flickered and brightened in the now-dark arena.  Security guards in yellow shirts unclipped the felt gate, pulled it aside, and walked backwards slowly, still protecting the high rollers in rows A-Z.  Many of those in the crowd flocked towards the red and the blue as if they were let in on a little secret, and a hard-core troubadour appeared god-like on the screens, bringing down The Word to the people.  Those in the rented brown seats remained hovering among the now discarded souvenir glasses, fresh empty cigarette packs, and spilled beer.

“Conservatively passionate/It’s the best we can do.” (Earle, 2002c)

A temp agency worker back beyond admission puts out his generic menthol cigarette, folded up his lawn chair, and walked towards his import that leaked a quart of oil every two weeks, and a left behind sign still continued to lie, trying to convince someone, anyone, that cracked concrete and rippling uneven blacktop deserved an extra five dollars for VIP parking.

“Meanwhile, still thinkin’/Hey, let’s wage a war on drugs/It’s the best we can do/Well, I don’t know about you, but I kinda dig this global warming thing…” (Earle, 2002c)

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Alterman, Eric. (2003) “Rules for changing the world”. The Nation, March 6.

 

Cash, Rosanne. (1986) Songs Without Rhyme. New York: Hyperion.

 

Cash, Rosanne. (1996) Bodies of Water. New York: Hyperion.

 

Cash, Rosanne. (2003) Interview. Fresh Air. Natl. Public Radio, WPLN, Nashville. June 23.

 

Earle, Steve. (2001) Doghouse Roses. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

Earle, Steve. (2002b) Interview. Fresh Air. Natl. Public Radio, WPLN, Nashville. April 5.

 

Earle, Steve. (2003) Interview. Progressive. Februrary, Vol. 67, Issue 2, p.35.

 

Gardner, Elysa. (2003) “Cash travels bring her full circle”. USA Today, 25 March, late ed.

 

Gray, Michael. (1998) “Feelin’ alright, Earle jams till wee hours”. Nashville Banner, 9 April, late ed.

 

Himes, Geoffrey. (2003) “Fellow Traveler: Rosanne Cash may have left Music Row long behind, but as her fine album proves, country music is at the core of her identity”. Nashville Scene, 24 April, Late ed.

 

Hilburn, Robert. (1981) “Rosanne Cashes in on talent”. Los Angeles Times, 21 March, late ed.

 

Moreau, Kevin. (2003) “Creative Loafing”. Steveearle.net, 19 February.

 

Mores, Steve. (1998) “Earle finds his own alternatives: Country-rocker eschews the status quo in music, politics”. The Tennessean, 18 February, late ed., p. 3D.

 

Nance, Kevin. (2002) “No time to kill: Nashville singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s crusade against the death penalty is redefininf his life”. The Tennessean, 20 October, late ed., pp. 18-21.

 

Oermann, Robert. (1990) “Citizen Cash: Rosanne takes social stands”. The Tennessean, 16 December, p. 1J.

 

Orr, Jay. (1999) “From the chamber of death: Steve Earle leads anti-execution tour to Ryman”. The Tennessean, 8 April, p. 1F.

 

Roland, Tom. (1996) “Cash back: Former Nashville renegade returns with new book, CD”. The Tennessean, 27 March, late ed., p. 3D.

 

Rolfe, William J. (1908) Shakespeare’s History of The Life and Death of King John. New York: American Book Company.

 

Shelbume, Craig. (2003) “Rosanne Cash rediscovers her voice on ‘Rules’”. CMT.com, 26 March.

The Life of David Gale, (2003) from DVD Special Feature, “Death in Texas”. Film. Directed by Alan Parker. USA: Universal Studios.

 

“The Making of Rules of Travel”. (2003) Rosannecash.com: http://www.rosannecash.com/makingofrules.html

 

Tucker, Ken. (1981) “Seven Year Ache, Rosanne Cash”. Rolling Stone, 11 June.

 

 

Discography

 

Cash, Rosanne. (1990) “This World.” Interiors. Columbia.

 

Earle, Steve. (1986) “Good Ole Boy.” Guitar Town. MCA.

 

Earle, Steve. (1990) “Billy Austin.” The Hard Way. E-Squared/Artemis.

 

Earle, Steve. (2002) “Ellis Unit One.” Sidetracks. E-Squared/Artemis.

 

Earle, Steve. (2002c) “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do).” Jerusalem. E-Squared/Artemis.

 





Roy L. Burkhead
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