When the 2017 presidential election results came down, and the man with the base disposition of an insolent teenager was deemed victorious, one of the hold-on-hope battle cries for the shattered many was that "music, particularly punk rock, would get good again."
The call-to-rally sentiment was sincere but unnecessary, as devastation will inherently—and thankfully—produce warriors. We've long had one already in country-tinged songwriter (read: troubadour) Steve Earle.
The singer, who hits Tucson this week, has been inspiring us to take hard looks at our country's injustices for more than a few decades now, sometimes by subtly highlighting its beauty, other times with a tough-as-a-motherfucker union of words that you couldn't sidestep without great effort.
Here are a handful of Earle's tunes that remind us that the new regime is really an old dog with new ugly tricks and that keeping eyes and ears on the past and present can continue to drive the fight for a decent future.
"Rich Man's War" from The Revolution Starts Now (2004)
Against the backdrop of slight twang and click-y, minimal drumbeat and classic Earle hypnotic groove, the song's just upbeat enough to juxtapose the title sentiment. Earle tells of Jimmy, "Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war." He outlines the dream of the American soldier versus the realities of serving in oft-undignified wars, and its aftereffects; a reminder to think which side of the line you choose to stand on, and why, most blatantly in its chorus' question and statement, "When will we ever learn/When will we ever see?" What's most affecting is the melancholy that resonates throughout, the images of family and tattoos and unpaid bills. It never manipulates. Springsteen would've gone to war to have written this song.
"Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" from Jerusalem (2002)
This convo about the increase in capitalist greed that parallels the continued gutting of human rights—especially regarding healthcare practices—since the country's inception is delivered through Earle's voice, which overflows with barb and brutality. "Meanwhile, back at the hospital/We got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills," couldn't sting more as we watch the current administration's war on Obamacare and affordable health insurance options. The tune's a pure, anti-elitist anthem of class conflict.
"Justice in Ontario" from The Hard Way (1990)
Flaws in the justice system are the focal point in this early and haunting Earle near-ballad. The deep, dark mandolin drives home the tragic outcomes of two cases in Ontario, Canada, one 200 years ago, and the other 100 years later. The first one inspired deaths via vigilante justice, and the other the imprisonment of six men, none of whom were the shooter. Earle reminds us that while the accused were hardly angels, they still deserved due process and fair treatment. And there's all sorts of truths and sadnesses humming beneath the surface. A gem.
"City of Immigrants" from Washington Square Serenade (2007)
Brazilian ex-pat worldbeat band, Forro in the Dark join Earle here. The message is simple, poignant. Though Earle doesn't mention New York City in the title, it's an easy guess. That absence of a direct reference reinforces the words of a guest performer—her sweet vocal reminds us that, "We are all immigrants." The urgency and lyrics are heartbreaking; there's much more here than the deceptively simple why-can't-we-just-get-along sentiment. It's a song of humanness, and of mutual respect.
"The Revolution Starts Now" from The Revolution Starts Now (2004)
When this record came out lazy critics poked fun at its title with cheeky lines like (paraphrasing), "Oh, really, is that when the revolution starts?" A dire message, though, doesn't need to be shrouded in boring academic speak to be fucking valuable. This title tune is a searing rock 'n' roller with a Beatle-y drone that invites the always-relevant question, "So what you doin' standin' around?" and to "Follow your heart." It's not the heart in the center of your chest; it's the heart in the center of the universe. Get it? It's personal and political, and a real appreciation of the necessity for constant evolution. So what part of the current administration could possibly be described as evolutionary? The tune is a mantra for the times. ■