Steve Earle's Hammer

A talented songwriter puts his message before his music.


"One of these days, I'm gonna lay this hammer down," the singer-songwriter Steve Earle declares on his newest CD, Washington Square Serenade. "Leave my burden restin' on the ground/When the air don't choke ya and the ocean's clean/And kids don't die for gasoline/One of these days I'm gonna lay this hammer down."

The song is called "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)," and it's not hard to figure out who Pete is: The folk singer Pete Seeger was slinging the same bludgeon when he wrote "If I Had a Hammer" in 1949. The left-libertarian critic Dwight Macdonald once said that Seeger favored "all the right Causes from getting out of Vietnam to getting into ecology. But they're folkery-fakery for all that." Earle, 53, is a gifted songwriter, and he made some of the finest country and rock records of the '80s and '90s. But he's come down with Seeger's folkery-fakery disease.

The problem is not, as some disillusioned fans claim, that his music became "political" after 9/11. Earle has been singing about politics since his first albums appeared in the '80s. What changed is that the music became earnest. Once Earle gave us story-songs filled with wry asides and telling details; they dealt with war, class, the death penalty, and other weighty issues, but they hardly ever hectored the listener. Then he picked up that hammer, and Lord how he hammers every single point home. Steve Earle used to write stories. Now he writes op-eds.

To sample the old Earle, listen to the title track of his 1988 album Copperhead Road. The narrator, a Vietnam vet from a long line of moonshiners, comes home from the war and decides to get into the marijuana business. The song moves through three generations in three verses, telling the story with economy but without neglecting the details that give the tale authenticity ("Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge/Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge"). The song ends with a vivid scene: "Well the DEA's got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I'm back over there/I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie, don't you know/You better stay away from Copperhead Road."

That's a far cry from the songs on Jerusalem (2002) and The Revolution Starts Now (2004), which sacrifice color and texture to make their points. Many of the songs don't tell stories at all, preferring to tell us directly that, say, "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." Others create characters who exist only to illustrate an argument. In theory, "Rich Man's War" is the story of Jimmy, a soldier who enlisted because he couldn't get a job anywhere else. In practice, the song is an opportunity for Earle to preach—he even throws in the line "When will we ever learn?"—and Jimmy is just a poorly realized stereotype. Earle fills in his background with stock details ("Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl/A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world") and, just in case we miss the point, he ends each verse with a reminder that Jimmy is "just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war."

There's a twist, sort of. The last verse turns to Ali, a Palestinian suicide bomber, and tells us that he too is a poor boy fighting a rich man's war. It's a nod to nuance, I suppose, but it pales before the quiet power of "I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie, don't you know." For that matter, when the narrator of "Copperhead Road" casually explains why he volunteered to go to 'Nam—"they draft the white trash first 'round here anyway"—he manages to get across half the message of "Rich Man's War" in just nine words.

And now we have Washington Square Serenade, named for the Greenwich Village park at the heart of the '50s and '60s folk revival. Musically speaking, it's Earle's strongest effort in seven years, mixing several schools of country music with rock and even hip-hop. Lyrically, it's being touted as a return to "personal" songwriting, but there are several topical efforts here too. The best of them, "Oxycontin Blues," is a throwback to the story-songs that used to dominate Earle's output.

But the singer hasn't flushed the folkery-fakery from his system. The big message-song here is "City of Immigrants," which reminds us, repeatedly, that "all of us are immigrants." If you're hoping to hear about any particular immigrant and his specific trials and joys, you're out of luck. That's the sort of thing the old Earle would have written, before he traded his pick and his pen for a sledgehammer.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason.