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Steve Earle and the Blood Knot of Social Control

Goodbye –

I have not always been a big Country-Western fan, but someone posted a clip of Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris performing Earle’s Goodbye on Facebook a few months back, and it’s been haunting me ever since. Goodbye is hill people music, a Scots-Irish ballad that aims for an ideal economy of expression in which hard-won truths and lessons learned are delivered without adornment. Earle is singing about the ravages of heroin addiction, how a woman left him and he didn’t even notice. “I can’t remember/if we said goodbye,” is the simple refrain. It’s a line that reverberates endlessly against itself in ways that convey us to the heart of our own vulnerability. The reason Earle didn’t notice is that he was too high at the time; he was too high because of the intensity of his vulnerability, which is exactly what made the woman’s departure inevitable. Regret leading to self-medication leading to more regret – it’s the self-entailing nature of addiction that is being lamented here, a cycle we can all relate to because of how, in an amplified, technicolored way, it mirrors the neurotic knots we are all bound by, to one degree or another.

The visual aspect of the YouTube clip is as gripping as the musical content. The performance is from sometime in the mid-1990s, and Earle looks terrible at the mic, his face puffy and moist from poor health and too much comfort food. For most of the song he seems only provisionally present in his own body, as if at any moment an eviction notice might arrive. Emmylou, singing backup nearby, seems, by contrast, luminous and angelic, the sharp contours of her porcelain beauty achieving a kind of Scots-Irish perfection that helps pin Earle in place under the lights. We sense she’s here exorcising ghosts of her own – the loss of her cherished Graham Parsons, who “forgot” to say goodbye when he died of an overdose in ’73, for example.

Elsewhere on the web, Earle describes how he wrote Goodbye coming off a four year long heroin-cocaine binge he refers to as his “vacation in the ghetto.” He hadn’t written anything for years when, as part of a court-mandated treatment program, he was briefly given access to a guitar and Goodbye quickly emerged. The song belongs to the category of work created entirely outside the boundaries of any professional, or even artistic, ambition. It’s the kind of nothing-to-lose gesture artists learn to trust and value most, devoid of self-image agendas. In Earle’s case there’s the sense that Goodbye was a kind of Hail Mary pass that somehow enlisted the energies of grace, pulling him up out of the abyss. Standing there under the lights we see a man confronting the ultimate trigger of psychic collapse – the loss of connection to love – and singing about it.

The rhetoric of recovery is familiar to most of us today, either because we have embraced that process directly, or have read the fiction of Raymond Carver, or watched our share of Oprah and Doctor Phil. The enemy here is toxic shame, a distilled 12-step version of the amorphous sense of lack that is referred to in various wisdom traditions by words like original sin, dukkha and alienation. Here the violent energies of the psyche are turned inward. The bewildering loss of the “responsive Other” is a crisis explained by the idea that the self is somehow fundamentally deficient. A pervasive regime of self-punishment ensues, the discomfort of self-persecution being preferable to the challenges of groundlessness and ambiguity. The heart begins to collapse in on itself, forming an armored ball locked in place. Jets of inky black emotion get woven into the fabric of self images that accumulate a perverse credibility. Among the many seductions of heroin to a creative person is how effectively the drug cuts through all that, anaesthetizing the anxiety and neutralizing the self-punitive campaign. For a time, at least, the heart-mind opens again toward knowing…and then, of course, the merciless mechanisms of dependency begin to kick in.

If the Country-Western ballad is a perfect vehicle for the “discourse of recovery,” the clip of Earle and Emmylou performing Goodbye also sheds light on broader social correlates of the kind of collapse described above. Raised in West Texas, Earle has always seemed both authentically Southern and also a man resisting the knee-jerk nativist attitudes and corrosive sentimentality common to many Country-Western singers. One wonders how central a role heroin abuse played in his ability to walk that line in a region growing increasingly intolerant of dissent, and increasingly mesmerized by the vapid moral primitivism of homespun proto-fascists like Sarah Palin. In the YouTube clip, Earle radiates sorrow and regret, and his vulnerability illuminates some of the deeper and more alarming tendencies in our collective history, tendencies that can be traced back to colonial times, when Scots-Irish immigrants brought this kind of music from the British Isles.

The Scots-Irish were the last of the four waves of immigration from Britain during the Colonial era, arriving in the early 18th century to Pennsylvania primarily, moving inland toward the cheaper land and spreading South along the spine of the Appalachians. They were from Northern England mostly, the borderland between England and Scotland, a blood-soaked battlefield for hundreds of years until King James I unified the two realms in 1603. Keeping the peace involved shipping huge numbers of people from these highly volatile border clans to Ulster County in Northern Ireland, where their warlike proclivities were used to control the local population. Within a few generations, tens of thousands began to move again, this time to the wild American colonies, where they quickly made life difficult for the indigenous people. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1829 marked the emergence of the Scots-Irish onto the national stage. Jackson promptly launched the infamous “trail of tears” in which tens of thousands of Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw died on forced marches West in violation of treaties signed and agreements made long before with the US Government. The Southern aristocracy, Royalists who had arrived in America decades before the Scots-Irish, supported this rejection of Federal prerogatives. A few decades later the Scots-Irish returned the favor by shedding blood to defend the “peculiar institution” of slavery they had little to do with in any direct way. Their fighting prowess is part of what made the Confederate Army a force to be reckoned with, and to this day they populate the US Armed Forces, an informal warrior caste with a taste for ballads about hard times, true love and a refusal to capitulate.

Earle has always been vocal in his opposition to the ways Country-Western has been co-opted by a political system embracing militarism and hegemony for ends that have nothing to do with the egalitarian clannishness of hill people. The faux-populism of wealthy elites like George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh culminates a long seduction that began in the 1930s after Roosevelt ran over the American aristocracy like a locomotive. Over the course of the intervening decades Southern man has been slowly seduced by the corporate right, indulged by dog whistle rhetoric aimed at directing the Scots-Irish hostility towards outsiders. Violent rhetoric is remarkably effective at polarizing a discourse, and it is currently being used with abandon by the right to buttress a repressive social hierarchy that betrays the interests of poor whites as thoroughly as anyone else. When we act with violence, even rhetorically, we create a feedback loop that alters the world we encounter in ways that are easy to overlook. Our violence infuses the world with a sense of menace and threat, making it likely that further violence will soon be called for. In subtle ways, violence removes us from the shifting ground of experience, sealing us within paranoic forms of the ego, armored by self-justifying narratives of resentment that cement coercive social hierarchies. Progressives are blind to the ways those brassy put downs from Sarah Palin represent a bid for social control.

Steve Earle, Goodbye, Big Bad Love Soundtrack, Released Dec. 28, 2004

The spectacle of the violent, self-excoriating soul encountering grace involves strong and visceral emotive contrasts. One way to view Steve Earle’s “vacation in the ghetto” is that it was a dogged exertion of integrity, a long campaign to counteract the ways a tradition of music-making was being distorted, and then redeem that tradition via the 12 Steps. Watching Earle you see a suffering human with stringy hair and zero pride. You see the wound, the basic anxiety of insecure human form, and this allow Goodbye to bring us to the edge of transformative recognitions of our own. We all want relief from this kind of imprisoning anxiety, and Earle offers us a balancing action that cuts against oppressive current that dominates human affairs. He reminds us that it’s actually crazy how we are, shifting continually between radically contradictory inner states, and suppressing all knowledge of our discontinuities. The trajectory of Earle’s career, hinging around Goodbye, suggests ways a toxic cultural pattern can be dissolved through artistic expression. One of the pleasures of the age is that one can, in a matter of seconds via Google, turn from this clip of Earle in the mid-1990s to a more recent clip where, trim and on his game, he sings the same song ten years later. Change arrives, is the message here, in ways we might be wise to replicate on a collective level, exorcising the demonic cultural forces that darken our horizon.


  1. Susan Hayden says:

    That was me — I posted the video, at two different times.
    Exquisitely written, Guy.
    Thanks as always .. –S.H.

  2. Gill Gayle says:

    Awesome as usual. Changed my brain.

  3. How could I not read this?

    I love the 2nd to last sentence of the 2nd to last paragraph.


  4. Sissy Boyd says:

    thank you Guy. this is soooo extraordinary (for someone like me.)

  5. Susan MArtin says:

    Your friend Sharon Smith sent me this article. Thank you. I always kinda sorta liked Stevie Earle but not like LOOOOVED him. “Goodbye” is a deceptively simple, simply great song and you have written a passionately informed and informative article. Thank you.

  6. Darrell Larson says:

    i think Steve would love this essay….

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