REBEL ROUSER

Lately, some people have been calling Steve Earle unpatriotic. He begs to differ. "It's certainly not unpatriotic to question anything in a democracy," he declares. "Under any circumstances."

Steve's questions are mostly aimed at the current U.S. government. His left-wing politics, including opposition to the Iraq war and the death penalty, have earned him quite a bit of anger from those who disagree.

"I'm irritating all the right people," chuckles Steve. "Life is good."

He first courted controversy in 2002 by releasing "John Walker's Blues," a song written from the point of view of the notorious "American Taliban" and a shock to casual listeners who knew him only from hits like "Guitar Town," "Goodbye's All We've Got Left" and "Copperhead Road." The fuss inspired a new documentary, Just an American Boy (out on video next month), and an accompanying live album.

Given his experience, it's no surprise that Steve can sympathize with the Dixie Chicks, who were dropped from radio stations following lead singer Natalie Maines' own anti-Pres. Bush statements. "That's dangerous, man," says 49-year-old Steve, a native Texan who has lived in Nashville for 30 years. "What Natalie did was just a citizen speaking out."

His concerns about freedom of speech and other issues have spurred Steve's desire to help change the country's leadership. "I'm open to doing almost anything this year that'll get Bush out of office," he offers.

That includes writing politically charged songs for his next album, which he plans to release before the November election. And if his new musical stance keeps him off the radio, he can accept that. "My audience would chastise me if they sensed that I was making any decision based on commerce rather than art," he figures. "It ain't a big deal, it ain't about being brave. I just don't know how to do it any other way."

-- Chris Neal

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