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Country - Released September 9, 2003 | Warner Records

Steve Earle subtitled his 2003 live album Just an American Boy an "Audio Documentary," which may be a bit more grand than it deserves, though in all fairness an awful lot had happened with Earle in the 12 years since his last live album, Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (recorded shortly before Earle's drug habit bottomed out both his career and his personal life for several years), and a lot was going on with him at the time this show was recorded. Always free with his opinions, Earle's 2002 album Jerusalem, which was written and recorded in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, featured a song about "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, and soon Earle was being denounced as a traitor by right-wing commentators faster than you could say "Dixie Chicks." As Earle himself puts it on this album, recorded on the tour supporting Jerusalem, "Things have been really f*cking weird down South, and they're gonna get even weirder," and he uses much of Just an American Boy to spotlight the progressive political slant that has long been a part of his songwriting, ranging from his moving anti-death penalty ballad "Billy Austin," the labor anthem "Harlan Man," and his call for new people's heroes in "Christmas in Washington" to a venomous screed against "compassionate conservatism," "Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)." While Earle mounts a soapbox through much of this set, his political views fortunately don't take a back seat to his skill as a songwriter, which remains razor sharp, or his vocals, which are craggy but emphatic on these recordings, with Earle and his band (including Eric "Roscoe" Ambel and Will Rigby) revving up a potent head of steam throughout. And Earle still knows a good song and a good laugh on the apolitical side of things, as witnessed by "I Remember You," "Ft. Worth Blues," and his stories about encountering square-headed cowboys named Otto in Schertz, TX. The last time Earle recorded a live double, his voice was about to give up on him and he was running on fumes; Just an American Boy finds him strong, defiant, eager to take a stand, and playing like a man half his age. Maybe that doesn't merit an "Audio Documentary," but it's pretty inspiring, and makes for good listening, too. © Mark Deming /TiVo

Country - Released January 10, 1997 | Warner Records

To say Steve Earle had career problems in 1994 when he recorded Train a Comin' is something more than an understatement. Earle's life went into a dramatic tailspin thanks to a voracious drug habit after he parted ways with MCA in 1991, and he ended up spending a few months in jail on drug and weapons charges in 1993. Earle thankfully got treatment for his addictions while behind bars, and was clean and sober for the first time in many years when he scored a deal with a tiny independent label, Winter Harvest Records, and cut an acoustic album called Train a Comin'. Considering how low Earle had sunk, it was a pleasant shock that Train a Comin' was not only good, it was one of the strongest albums of his career to date. Dominated by songs he's written years before along with a few new tunes and some well-chosen covers, Train a Comin' featured Earle with a small group of gifted acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr., and the tone of these sessions is at once relaxed and committed, sounding like a back porch guitar pull with a seriously talented guy handling the lead vocals and calling out the tunes. Earle's experiences with the judicial system hadn't exactly improved his voice, but he's in far more potent form than he had been on 1991's live set Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator, and his control and command of his instrument is genuinely impressive. Earle's natural cockiness works in his favor on these tunes, especially "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Hometown Blues," and "Angel Is the Devil," and his gift for telling a story is plainly evident on "Ben McCulloch" and a moving cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley." Train a Comin' is not an album that asks the audience to forgive Steve Earle for his sins; it's a document of an artist who after a season in hell has reclaimed his gift and is determined to put it to use, and after years of fighting Nashville to do things his own way, Earle resumed his career by following his own muse with eloquent simplicity, and Train a Comin' shows his instincts were entirely correct. [Winter Harvest's original release of Train a Comin' featured a sequence not approved by Earle, who reissued the album on his E Squared label with a different running order; some pressings of the E Square version also delete his cover of the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You."] © Mark Deming /TiVo

Country - Released March 1, 1996 | Warner Records

Steve Earle quietly announced he was back in action and capable of making substantial, heartfelt music again with his 1994 acoustic album Train a Comin', but on 1995's I Feel Alright Earle showed he was truly back in fighting shape, and from the album's first moments he sounds ready to roar and holds nothing back. While Earle's battle with drug abuse and his brief stay in prison aren't explicitly addressed on this album (except on the harrowing "CCKMP," in which Earle confesses "cocaine cannot kill my pain" and "heroin is the only thing/the only gift the darkness brings"), the hurt brought to himself and others by his betrayals runs through many of these songs, sometimes with humor ("Hard Core Troubadour"), sometimes with regret ("Valentine's Day"), and sometimes with a painful self-awareness ("Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" and "The Unrepentant"). But I Feel Alright isn't about addiction and loss so much as recovery and starting over again, and if the songs often concern Earle's misdeeds, the strength of the music finds him confronting his demons without flinching and conjuring up some of the powerfully muscular rock and affecting country of his life. And like Train a Comin', I Feel Alright shows Earle finding the courage and confidence to make a record just the way he wants, and this may be Earle's finest hour in the studio -- the production is tough, resonant, and a perfect match for the material, the players bring their A game without showboating, and Earle's rough but passionate vocals are pure, honest, and direct on every cut. I Feel Alright affirmed that Steve Earle's brush with oblivion had not only failed to silence him, but he was a more courageous artist when he came out the other side, and no one who has heard this record is likely to argue that point. © Mark Deming /TiVo


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