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