CHICAGO Steve Earle watched through a window last Oct. 7
while a lethal injection was pumped into Texas murderer Jonathan
But that's not why the singer/songwriter says he feels a sense of
responsibility for state executions.
"In a democracy, the government is ostensibly us," the burly
country-rocker said Thursday. "There is no 'they.' There is no other
side to this. It's us that's killing people. I'm killing people. And
I'm not OK with me killing people."
Earle, 44, was backstage at the Metro club, preparing to headline a
benefit for the Illinois Moratorium Project, which seeks to halt
executions while a task force studies the death penalty. Since
executions resumed in the state in 1977, 12 inmates have been released
from death row after having been found innocent.
"For us to have this dialogue while there are killings going on is
really, really hard," Earle said. He appeared relaxed in an overstuffed
chair after a day of radio talk-show appearances. He held a wooden
pipe in his right hand; with his left, on which he sported a skull
ring, he scratched his gray-flecked beard.
"If there's a moratorium, that discussion can be had in an atmosphere
that's a lot less toxic, and a lot less volatile," Earle said.
He opened his solo acoustic set with "Billy Austin," the tale of a
thief-turned-murderer in his final hour before execution. "I never
thought I'd cross the line," intoned Earle, himself a former
crack-cocaine user who has spent time in jail.
By the set closer, he brought the theme full circle with "I Ain't
(RealAudio excerpt), a
sing-along from early in his career. "I got an empty feeling deep
inside/ I'm going over to the other side," he sang in a leathery,
Both songs demanded that people assume ownership of their sins,
whether they've pulled the trigger on a filling station attendant or
pulled the switch on the most heinous of killers.
Although he made a name for himself in 1986 as an outlaw country-rock
singer, Earle began his career in the early '70s as a folk singer. He
recalled those days with a cover of the Bob Dylan version of Eric von
Schmidt's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" and Lightnin' Hopkins'
Earle rotated the Hopkins song, in which car troubles are used as a
metaphor for sexual problems, so that his guitar work became a sonic
metaphor for the car troubles.
Even before those songs, the show had the vibe of an old political
folk rally. With a harmonica rack around his neck and his gray T-shirt
sleeves rolled high on his bulging arms, Earle would have looked at
home singing 1930s laments about union busters.
More recently, he's built a reputation as a singer/songwriter with
occasional bluegrass leanings. At the Metro, his delicate and
remorseful reading of "Valentine's Day" showcased the personal over
Earle started his encores with "Ellis Unit One"
a song named for Texas' death-row facility, which appeared on an
album of music inspired by the 1994 execution film "Dead Man Walking."
"Swing low, swing low/ And carry me home," he sang, pleading for
deliverance from crimes of all sorts.
Before the show, Earle said the benefit crowd of several hundred was
smaller than he typically draws in Chicago. "It's an unpopular issue,"
he said. "It will cost you record sales."
Several audience members concurred with Earle's politics. One Illinois
state employee, who asked not to be named, said he opposed executions,
because of his Roman Catholic beliefs. But he said he doubted that
innocent people were still being sentenced to die in Illinois.
James O'Brien Beck, president of the Illinois Coalition Against the
Death Penalty, said he thought most supporters of capital punishment
accepted the practice without examining it.
"The music might push them to question it," Beck said. "It's
through emotion that people start thinking about it. Hopefully that's
what's going to happen tonight."