Reviews for Just An American Boy

last updated: 22 Mar 2004

San Francisco Chronicle

Just an American Boy Artemis $24.95

Steve Earle is mad as hell, from the crunching opener, "Amerika 6.0 (The Best That We Can Do)" to this two-CD live set's climactic finale, a cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." He's also compassionate, poetic, touching and brave.

A companion piece to a film documentary of the same name, "Just an American Boy" borrows its title from Earle's most important recent work, "John Walker's Blues," his lament for the young Marin man found fighting with the Taliban, branded a traitor and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The song earned Earle the enmity of what seemed like the entire country music establishment, but he was courageous to contemplate a human side to this poor kid, crushed and discarded in the name of propaganda.

But Earle casts his eyes all over the country's landscape, from the rescue of the Harlan miners to the vagaries of his Texas hometown. He pleads for Woody Guthrie to come back. He plays rock, bluegrass, country, down-home blues, Celtic soul. He is a charismatic performer, plumbing the best of his recent recordings -- along with earlier milestones such as "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road" -- on a live record that captures his immense charisma.

"Just an American Boy" is politics, passion, the lives of ordinary people and the kind of fierce populism that made America great in the first place.

-- Joel Selvin

Creem Magazine

There’s an attractive thing about revival meetings. Tired believers come to the tent to lay their burdens down and get their spiritual batteries recharged. Life is hard, the thinking goes, but there are things worth believing in. Those things provide the comfort—and the fire—that helps keep people moving.

Steve Earle’s new live record, Just an American Boy has that revival-tent effect for us old-school lefties. These are bleak times for people who oppose the growing American culture of death and oppression (with the latter seeming much worse than the former). But on this righteous two-disc set, Earle reminds us why Americana isn’t a dirty word. But rather than getting didactic on our asses, he does what he does best—tells rich stories in song and in spoken word.

The thing about Earle on this record (and the preceding studio work Jerusalem) is that it finally sounds like he’s completely comfortable in his own skin. He’s got a clear-eyed consciousness and a no-bullshit approach that is refreshing. From the paranoid-techie "America V. 6.0" to the gripping "Harlan Man"(which talks about those Pennsylvania miners), Earle shows why he deserves to be included in the Guthrie/Dylan lineage.

Of course, we all know that the personal is the political, and Earle’s personal story is filled with colorful tales and near-death drama. The tales of his own pain lend legitimacy to his work—like this motherfucker knows what he’s talking about. "Hometown Blues" and "South Nashville Blues" show different sides of his wild days—the first jaunty, the second almost mournful.

On Just an American Boy, though, it’s the overtly political material that is some of the most powerful. The anti-death penalty songs "Over Yonder"and "Billy Austin" put a human face on the issue. That’s a feat he also accomplishes for one of the most enigmatic figures to come out of the whole post-9/11 freakout: John Walker Lindh.

"John Walker’s Blues" was always more interesting than the redneck "Angry American" country pap that followed 9/11 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. Instead of asking searching questions and trying to figure out why so many people in the world hate this country, it seems that many artists contented themselves with parroting jingoistic government platitudes. But not Earle. He uses "John Walker’s Blues" as a meditation Daring to suggest that the MTV faux culture teenagers are indoctrinated with might not provide enough spiritual meat. And when people go out looking for fulfillment, they don’t always end up in a happy place. (Note: there’s also a documentary DVD with much of the same material that provides great insight into Earle’s indefatigable activism and the Walker imbroglio).

Nowadays, it seems like Earle’s words are far more likely to get him in trouble than his actions. But it doesn’t seem like he’d have it any other way.

"The most important thing to remember is, no matter what anybody tells you, it is never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question any-fucking-thing in a democracy," Earle said, before launching into a torrid cover of the Brinsley Schwartz/Elvis Costello chestnut "What’s So Funny (’bout Peace, Love and Understanding)?"

When he puts it like that, his America sounds like a place in which a person could be genuinely patriotic to live.

--Brian J. Bowe
August 2003

Lincoln Journal Star

For the last couple of weeks, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham has been flogging her new book in the echo chamber that is right-wing radio and cable television. Yet another jeremiad aimed at the left, "Shut Up and Sing" takes on entertainers and others she tabs as "elites."

Unlike most of her colleagues, Ingraham isn't a philistine. She actually finds some value in popular culture and admits to being a movie and music fan. But she makes a revealing admission while attempting to establish her hip bonafides:

Ingraham lists Steve Earle along with the likes of Coldplay as artists whose music frequently populates her CD player.

But I'm guessing Earle's new CD, "Just An American Boy," isn't going to be getting much play in the Ingraham home. Subtitled "The Audio Documentary," the two-disc set is a live recording of an Earle show "somewhere in North America" that captures a powerful, committed performance by one of the most political of today's artists.

Earle, of course, garnered headlines last year when he released a song sympathetic to the plight of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh -- to which he makes reference early in the show.

"Back home, I have been accused of being unpatriotic, which doesn't bother me very much," Earle told the crowd, which I'm guessing was somewhere in Canada. "Mainly because I'm sure my definition of patriotism and that of my accusers is pretty far apart. I'm OK with that."

That down-to-earth, who-cares-what-Fox-News thinks attitude reflects not only the Earle who I've known for close to two decades but the way most activist entertainers deal with Ingraham and her fellow travelers.

Earle is no stranger to controversy. A committed death penalty opponent, he has long been among the most outspoken musicians, even before "John Walker's Blues" threw him into the forefront of questioning the Bush Adminstration's war agenda last year.

But Ingraham doesn't include any Earle quotes in her selections of celebrity statements designed to show that the left-wing entertainment elite is a bunch of simplistic idiots.

Maybe that's because he's a smart guy who takes well-thought-out positions on issues and is capable of discussing them for hours -- as I can tell you from personal experience.

Maybe it's because it's hard to call a reformed junkie, who's only alive because he cleaned up during a stretch in jail, a member of any kind of elite.

Then again, maybe it's just because Ingraham likes Earle's music and cuts him some slack in exchange for the enjoyment and insight his songs have given her -- which is really why the outspoken entertainers on the left get so deeply into the wingnuts' craws.

The masses whom Ingraham, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the rest claim to represent have consistently demonstrated that they pay almost no attention to entertainers' politics when it comes to making decisions about what movies to go see or what concerts to attend or CDs to download or buy.

That became crystal clear when the Dixie Chicks took a full-frontal attack from the right's talking heads and came out largely unscathed, still selling out concerts. Now Sean Penn and Tim Robbins -- actors the right loves to hate -- are starring in one of the fall's most anticipated pictures, "Mystic River," a film directed by the noted conservative Clint Eastwood.

That's not contradictory on the part of Eastwood, who's going to get the best talent he can for his movie. That is something that the conservative critics seem to overlook, just like they overlook outspoken Hollywood conservatives like Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Conan The Republican.

Ingraham's smart enough to know that she can't get away with such obvious hypocrisy in her book. But her justification for excluding Schwarzenegger and company from her criticism is laugh-inducing. With a straight face, she argues that they're not part of an elite. Yeah, sure.

If Ingraham picks up "Just An American Boy," perhaps she'll see the light.

For Earle, his tight bands, the Dukes and the Bluegrass Dukes, and guest vocalist Garrison Starr present a compelling show of roots music which goes back to the holler, down in the mine and rollicks down the highway.

Along the way, he addresses in speech and song the miners rescued in Pennsylvania and why they were saved by previous union activity, the horror of the death penalty for both those for whom the government is killing in our name and the executed and, of course, the contemporary issues taken on in songs like "Amerika 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" and "Conspiracy Theory" from last year's fine album "Jerusalem."

After the band has torn through "John Walker's Blues," "Jerusalem" -- a song about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has renewed resonance -- and "The Unrepentant," Earle returns for an encore of "Christmas in Washington,"his tribute to Woody Guthrie,Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others. But before he even begins the song he talks about some of his heroes who aren't in its lyrics.

Joan Baez could be in the song, Earle said, for singing "Joe Hill" at Woodstock for her imprisoned husband, who was in jail to shut him up. So could Abbie Hoffman, who pointed out that in the '60s, for the first time in history, a people rose up against its army and the army quit.

So could former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who pardoned all the state's inmates who had been sentenced to death and then was criticized for being selfish and assuaging his conscience.

"I'll submit to you that if we all checked in with our conscience before we made a major decision, it'd be a lot better world we live in," Earle says.

The last hero he lists is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who, after hearing Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft rant about those who oppose his policies "aiding and abetting" terrorists, simply replied that Ashcroft has the same First Amendment rights as anyone else.

That theme continues after the song ends, with Earle continuing to talk to the audience, ending his discourse with a ringing statement:

"The most important thing to remember is, no matter what anybody tells you, that is it is never, ever unpatriotic or unAmerican to question any f---ing thing in a democracy."

The Dukes then launch into a driving, ringing cover version of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding." Putting the song in that context raises a question that can't be answered by the pithy putdowns of Ingraham and the rest of her ilk.

You don't have to agree with Earle to know that he cares deeply about what he's singing and talking about -- and he's as informed about those issues as any commentator or politician left or right. So, Laura, where do you get off telling him, or anyone else, to "Shut Up and Sing"?

L. Kent

New Jersey Star Ledger

Earle bares talent and feeling with 'Just an American Boy' Sunday, October 05, 2003

"Just an American Boy The Audio Documentary" Steve Earle

(Artemis/E-Squared) *** 1/2 This double-live CD showcases Earle and his band, the Dukes, in full, feisty, country-rock glory during their 2002-03 North American tour. The companion to a video documentary scheduled for release later this month, "Just an American Boy" demonstrates the sheer quality and power of Earle's music, and also serves as a forum for him to vent about his pet causes, most notably, his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Make no mistake, the set is mostly music, and Earle and the band sparkle consistently. They perform numerous songs from Earle's most recent, and most topical studio album, 2002's "Jerusalem," but also pull out songs from throughout his prolific, two-decade career and throw in a few surprises. The fiery performances offer an absolutely irresistible combination of passion and expertise.

Disc 1 is flawless. It opens with three hard-hitting, outspoken songs from "Jerusalem" that seamlessly combine a folk-rock sensibility with a sizzling hip-hop tempo. Later, during an affecting if quieter foray into bluegrass, Earle focuses on the plight of Appalachians and coal miners in "The Mountain" and "Harlan Man," before segueing via a Celtic reel into his rocking, early hit, "Copperhead Road."

Disc 2 is not quite as strong. After opening with a compelling country-blues segment paying tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt, the performances become somewhat less crisp. Included, of course, is "John Walker's Blues," the controversial song about the young American who joined the Taliban that opens with the line used in the album's title. At this point, the monologues opposing the war become a bit tiresome as Earle starts to sound self-righteous. But the album closes strongly with a thunderous cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding," followed by a quiet, haunting song by Earle's son, Justin, called "Time You Waste." Although the song is not as distinctive as his dad's work, the younger Earle's resonant, professional-sounding voice suggests he has focused more on studying music, and less on partying, than his father did.

Ben Horowitz
New Jersey Star Ledger

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