Steve Earle is against the death penalty and for the United Mine Workers. His heroes include Joan Baez and Senator Patrick Leahy. And his new live double disc, Just an American Boy (the companion to a soon-to-be-released film), yields enough stage patter to render these and other political leanings crystal-clear for those who can't be bothered with song lyrics.
For years Earle has been considered one of the best songwriters in America. And with the recent passing of Johnny Cash, he has become the country's most socially conscious musical scribe as well. The opening lyric from Earle's controversial "John Walker's Blues" -- "I'm just an American boy raised on MTV" -- provides not only this record's title but also proof that American Boy is more than a simple "Greatest Hits Live" attempt: It's one man's grasp of a post-9-11 world. Fans more taken with the early MCA-era Texas-escaping Steve Earle should check out 1991's live set Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator instead; on this album, a full six songs come from last year's Jerusalem, Earle's most political work to date.
Which is not to say that there's not fun to be had or great songs to be heard on American Boy; if anyone can pull off the double bill of "earnest" and "entertaining," it's Earle. The theme of growing up in (and trying to return to) Texas permeates "Hometown Blues." The anti-death-penalty lament "Over Yonder" is poignant. "The Unrepentant" rocks hard. And the elegant "Christmas in Washington" serves admirably as lead-in to the dead-on rhetorical cover of "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding." While at times Earle preaches, Just an American Boy is ultimately as honest -- and entertaining -- a disc as you'll find this year.