Steve Earle

The day after his Saturday show at the Variety Playhouse, longtime country maverick Steve Earle could conceivably win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album (for last year's stirring, straightforward Jerusalem). But it's clear such popularity contests are pretty far down on the outspoken country-rocker's agenda — one that includes fiction writing, journalism, his Nashville theater company, anti-death-penalty activism, and generally expressing himself and his passionately held liberal ideas by any means necessary. And, oh yeah, touring behind Jerusalem, whose "John Walker's Blues," about American Taliban John Walker Lindh, stirred some right-wing rabble-rousing last fall.

Creative Loafing: Can I guess which question you've been asked the most times today?

Steve Earle: [Laughs.] Basically, a hundred different ways of framing the question about "John Walker's Blues." Mainly, did I expect the backlash from it. Really, you can't write something like that and not know. And it came from the places I expected it from.

Let the record show that we did not ask you that question. Were you surprised at how quickly the so-called "controversy" disappeared?

Actually, it was funny. The biggest surprise was that it occurred a month before the record came out. It sustained itself for a little while, but I know why it downed when it did: It wasn't getting them anywhere. I think they were afraid it was helping me more than hurting me.

The story is that the head of your record label had talked to you about doing a political record before Sept. 11. Is that right?

Well, [Artemis Records Chairman and CEO] Danny Goldberg suggested to me that one way I could distinguish my next record from my last one, Transcendental Blues, was to write an overtly political record. I wasn't that keen on the idea; I thought it'd be boring. Then Sept. 11 happened, and I found myself writing exactly that record. And I felt like I needed to get this record out [fast], because the material was really perishable.

How are things going with your various writing projects?

I'm working on a novel right now. It's called I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive at this point, and it's about a fictional character who's based on a person who really existed, who may or may not have been a doctor who was traveling with Hank Williams when he died. I'd been working on it for a while, but then stopped to finish the play I wrote, Karla [about famed Texas Death Row inmate Karla Faye Tucker]. That's finished; we put it on up here in Nashville, and it did well; the reviews were great. We're working on putting it on in L.A. this summer, and probably Chicago after that.

What impact did your stint in prison have on your stance on the death penalty?

I was already opposed to the death penalty before I went to prison; I wrote the song "Billy Austin" [about it] in 1990. I probably understand something about the way people think in jail. That had to do with a lot of Death Row inmates writing to me in prison [when] they read that I'd been locked up.

Do you think you'd be working this hard for these causes if you'd quit music after prison and become, say, a truck driver?

Huh. I don't know. That's a tough question. The platform being available is definitely a part of it. The other part, for me, is gratitude. I knew that when I came out of prison, I didn't have to drive a truck; I had a career already waiting for me. And it was relatively easy as long as I did the things I needed to do to stake out a place for myself — and I'm very grateful for that. I feel that I've not only got a shot to make my dreams come true, I feel like it's my duty to do something with it — like with the death penalty. Whether you agree with me or not, I believe that creating the dialogue is good for everybody.

OK, who's most in need of an ass-kicking: Ryan Adams or Rhett Miller?

[Laughs.] I don't think Ryan needs an ass-kicking. I just think he needs to stop going on the No Depression message boards and reading about himself.

Steve Earle and the Dukes play Sat., Feb. 22, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Garrison Starr opens. 8:30 p.m. $25. 404-521-1786. www.variety-playhouse.com.