Here are a couple of records from one of America’s best songwriters. One is a batch of cuts made for movie soundtracks, or for some other reason didn’t fit on his albums. The other is brand spanking new, and causing controversy for no reason.
The controversial one is Jerusalem‘, and the controversy is over a little ditty called “John Walker’s Blues.” Yes, that‘ John Walker; John Walker Lyndh, the American kid who fought with the Taliban.
Earle sings the song in the first person, as Walker, and tries to explain why a kid would become “the American Taliban” (does everyone hate that expression as much as I do?). It’s an okay song. Not surprising that a guy like Earle would write this kind of thing. But it’s neither controversial in my mind, nor all that impressive a song. In fact, of the 11 cuts here, it’s one of my least favorite, and not because of the subject matter. I just don’t think he fleshed out the character enough, and the music is, at best, refried folk/rock.
The problem is in this day and age, anyone not toeing the line is bound for some criticism, and that’s what happened here. Hell, I think the intelligent and well-written liner notes by Earle are more controversial than the song is. If anything should raise the hackles of the folks who think any words contrary to the president’s are treasonous, it would be those liner notes.
Okay, enough about that song. Maybe the publicity did Steve some good.
Other than that, this is a fine album, the kind you’ve come to expect from Earle. Not as strong as his last effort, it still contains some excellent writing. There’s a lot of stuff, as you’d expect, pulled from today’s headlines. “Amerika v. 6.0 (the Best We Can Do)” is an acerbic take on American’s priorities. “What’s a Simple Man to Do” has a fatalistic lyric and a stomp that must be making Doug Sahm smile in heaven. “The Truth” tells a prison tale with Earle scraping the lyrics through a bullhorn, a la Tom Waits. “Conspiracy Theory” is a must-listen for fans of talk radio everywhere, and the title cut is a wonderfully upbeat way to end things. Not Earle’s best work, but a strong album.
Also interesting is the Sidetracks‘ disc released earlier this year. “Some Dreams,” from the movie The Rookie, is a real gem. It’s what he does best. A killer country-rock story with killer hooks, both lyrically and musically. Same with “Open Your Window” and “Me and the Eagle.” Country-folk with a purpose. Then, there’s some really off-the-wall stuff that helps you see some of his very varied influences. “Johnny Too Bad” takes us to the islands. “Breed” is the very unexpected Nirvana cover. “Time Has Come Today” lets him share the spotlight with Sheryl Crow and Abbie Hoffman (in spoken word). And Little Feat’s “Willin'” really was meant to be sung by Earle. It fits him, and he fits it.
There’s also some nice instrumental stuff; Earle and friends shine on the Celtic-meets-the-South “Dominick St.” And there’s a live cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “My Uncle” that’ll knock your socks off.
Both these are worth having. Ignore the hype about “John Walker’s Blues,” and just enjoy the music.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.