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Bubba and the Beast

The outspoken Steve Earle plays a solo acoustic set for the Memphis Arts Council.

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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. -- "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" by Steve Earle

"It is never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question anything in a democracy, no matter what anybody else says what an insult it is," the ever controversial Steve Earle recently told a New Zealand reporter.

Earle had made the list: The New York Post's now-infamous list of traitors who dare to disagree with our infallible president.

"I just wasn't raised as an artist to believe that you censor yourself because of being afraid of offending someone," he says.

Earle is nothing if not an artist. But the descriptions author, activist, poet, actor, and troubadour also fit. As a musician, he's always been impossible to categorize by trend or genre. Is he the proud papa of alt-country or the last of the real Texas Outlaws? When Earle and Randy Travis made the Nashville scene in the mid-1980s, the industry coined the term new country just for them.

Earle's earliest recordings flirt with classic rockabilly, but his earliest releases drew comparisons to Springsteen. Over the years since his 1986 debut Guitar Town alerted critics (if not the public) to a new light shining in the forest of American roots music, Earle has recorded classic rock, country, Celtic, folk, and bluegrass. He's harmonized with Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crowe. He's gotten down in the gutter with the Pogues. He's become a genuine workingman's hero with serious academic appeal.

At age 49 Earle's name is still occasionally linked to Springsteen or John Mellencamp. When he sang "Shadowlands" on the politically charged album Jerusalem, he fomented his ties to Hank Williams and the heart of Honky Tonk.

Way out yonder, where the wild wind blows

There's a place where lonely fools can go

Where if you hold your money, it'll burn your hand

So you buy you a ticket to the shadowland.

More and more frequently, however, Earle's name is paired with cultural icons and cult heroes like Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Townes Van Zandt, Earle's wayward mentor.

"Good teacher, bad role model." That's Earle's standard description of "Pancho and Lefty" songwriter Van Zandt. He was an incorrigible drunk who Earle, while still in his teens, once tied to a tree to keep him sober. Of course, we're going "behind the music" here, and naturally Earle follows in Van Zandt's footsteps. While writers at Rolling Stone penned a glowing "Country Album of the Year" review for Guitar Town, Earle was cruising the streets of south Nashville looking for a fix. He's blamed a few of his many failed marriages on "mutual interest in drug abuse," and he did a few months jail time in the early 1990s. But that was then.

If there is an artist who Earle may be rightly compared, it's the Man in Black: Johnny Cash. He's been a mean-eyed cat, sampled all the best sins, and come through all the better. His tireless campaign to end the death penalty has made him a hero of the left while his redneck anthems have made him the darling of gun-rights-Republicans. For almost 20 years his songs have redefined traditions and defied trends. Through it all Earle has never been a man to beg for mercy. Justice has been his chief concern.

Bubba and the Beast are the two fictional personas Earle assumes when he writes his songs. Bubba's a redneck. He's the guy wailing, "I learned a thing or two from Charlie don't you know. You better stay away from Copperhead Road." The Beast is a malevolent spirit that draws down depression like lightning. It's the voice of "Shadowlands," and "John Walker's Blues," a sympathetic look at the young American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

"I don't like Kid Rock, and I'm not trying to impress Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. or any of those people," Earle told the New Zealand press. "[I have] some friends I think are really politically aware and are scared, but I wouldn't name any names. But they are terrified about the effect [that speaking out against the government] would have on their careers And the government has capitalized on that."

Bubba, the Beast, rebel rocker, country torchbearer, political shack-shaker, social activist, uncompromising artist not to be missed, ladies and gentlemen, Steve Earle. n

Steve Earle headlines Artrageous, a fund-raiser for the Greater Memphis Arts Council on Friday, May 21st at United Warehouse, 138 St. Paul Ave. (one block east of S. Main'sCentral Train Station). In addition to Earle, Artrageous will showcase a variety of visual and performing artists. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

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