Steve Earle at Anthology.

There was a moment, at the turn of the century, when the music community was looking past the face paint and suggesting that Kiss was some kind of genius thing. But at the 2000 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, I saw Steve Earle put an end to that. Earle was the keynote speaker that year, and opened his address for the gathering of music-industry types and journalists by announcing, “Kiss never was great, Kiss is not great and Kiss never will be great.”

That sealed the deal for me: Steve Earle is an unapologetic original.

I’ve been thinking about Earle, and playing his music for a week now, following his show at a packed Anthology, the downtown Rochester club. Steve Earle & the Dukes, a hard-rocking band with a beautiful mix of acoustic instrumentation: fiddle, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, upright bass, vocal harmonies. A show celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of Earle’s Copperhead Road album, played in its entirety, from start to finish. Followed by 15 more songs from Earle’s career, including a few well-chosen covers.

Most of us seemed to be there not only for the music, but for the attitude. And Earle, sporting some kind of samurai-warrior headband, is not shy about delivering.

Earle has famously been married seven times to six different women. His drinking and drug use – heroin, cocaine, LSD – nearly killed him. He’s single now, joking at the show that his therapist has told him that he enters into doomed relationships because in actuality he likes to be alone. He’s also been sober, and drug free, for nearly a quarter century. And it’s been a while since he’s been in jail.

Out of this, we’ve seen a relentlessly productive creativity. Besides the music, Earle’s acted, and acted out. Social issues are a big part of his life. Intensely anti-death penalty, he’s stood vigil outside of prisons where executions were underway. The title character of his 2005 play, Karla, is Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. The protagonist in his 2011 novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, is a doctor who performs illegal abortions, and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. In 2002 Earle wrote a song, “John Walker’s Blues,” that sympathized with a young American named John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert who joined the Taliban and was captured by U.S. forces during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan; Lindh is still serving a 20-year-sentence without parole because of his actions, and Earle received death threats because of his words.

Earle also has an autistic son, so now that has become a cause as well.

Music. The world’s ills. Healing. Earle is a multi-tasker.

It had been nearly two years since the last time I saw Earle perform. Trump had just been elected president. Earle opened his set with “City of Immigrants.” The song where he reminds us, “All of us are immigrants, all of us are immigrants.” And he closed the show with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Words we all learn in elementary school, except some schools leave out the lines Earle likes, the more-provocative lines:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

Earle’s Anthology show, and the Copperhead Road revival, had that provocative side.

The ’80s was an era of cassette tapes, Earle noted, because that’s how you listened to music in your car. But as Earle explained it, the album itself was from that distant era of music on vinyl records, Side A and Side B. Producer Phil Spector once called the first and last songs on each side “the four corners” of an album. And although Earle conceded that he sold a lot of Copperhead Road cassettes, the album was built for vinyl. Side A of Copperhead Road is the political side. The politics was a nation coming to terms with Vietnam. The title track is about a Vietnam vet who forsakes the family moonshine business to grow pot.

And Side B is, as Earle explained, the “chick” songs. All of the great songwriters are multi-taskers. Bob Dylan wrote great social songs, as should a world-aware man of the 1960s. And married twice – maybe more, he’s been very secretive – Dylan writes great love songs as well.

Earle also does both. He writes his social conscious. And he writes about love. With the experience of a man who’s been married seven times. I guess that makes him 3½ times the love-song writer that Dylan is.

Look around. Where do you find this country’s social consciousness? Certainly not in the Trump administration, where the legitimacy of truth has been destroyed.

When truth makes an appearance, it is often in dramatic fashion, as in the marches we’ve seen over the last two years in this country. At his Anthology show, Earle recalled how he was on his tour bus watching a day of protest by young people – I think he was referring to 2018’s March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., after 17 students and staff were killed, and another 17 wounded, at the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. And Earle remarked on how that gathering of young people – and there were also about 880 related marches around the country that weekend – was larger than Trump’s inauguration crowd.

So we have moments like that, and the Women’s March the day following Trump’s inauguration. Again, a larger crowd than the Trump inauguration gathering.

But the crowds dissipate, everyone goes home, back to work. Much of the country lives paycheck to paycheck these days, there’s no time to take to the streets every time a new outrage is thrown in our faces.

We cannot allow authority figures to make decisions unchecked. We must be the balance. Last month, the Texas State Board of Education finally decided to concede that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and not the whitewashing – pardon the pun – “states rights” issue many of us were taught in school. Never turn your back on these people: They were also discussing removing Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton from classroom guidelines. Even while preserving a claim that Moses, who historians aren’t sure even existed, influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

But, thankfully, Earle exists. And thousands of other songwriters who have written music of consciousness for our era. Guthrie, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, Earle. This year, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Have you heard it? Even more startling, have you seen the video? A stunning vision of our country caught in a desensitized thrall of casual violence.

Whether you agree or disagree, our songwriters and artists should never apologize for speaking truth to power. We needed it when Woody Guthrie was challenging the corporate special interests that were ruining the American Dream. And we need it today, when… well, when the corporate special interests are ruining the American Dream.

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