By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

January 8, 2004

Steve Earle
"Just An American Boy"
Artemis Records

"Just an American Boy" is Steve Earle's second live album, but the similarities end there. "Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator" in 1991 was all that the title implied: loud and hard, and the odds of Earle actually dying then were pretty good.

The new two-CD set is a companion piece to a film documentary that will appear on DVD next month. Since "Shut Up," Earle has been busted for drugs and jailed, cleaned up and slimmed down, and he's made some of his best music since the mid-'80s.

Most of the 26 tracks are from Earle's post-prison career, and they reflect his interest in bluegrass ("The Mountain," "Harlan Man") as well as country and rock.

The album features many of the songs and introductions that energized Earle's show at the Pageant last year. He is funny reminiscing about growing up in Schertz, Texas ("Hometown Blues"); compassionate talking about coal miners ("Harlan Man"); and proud and defiant in his love of democracy ("What's So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding").

Ironically, he says nothing about "John Walker's Blues," an empathetic look at "just an American boy" who aided the Taliban. That song made Earle a target of the love-it-or-leave-it crowd last year.

Earle is well-known for his opposition to the death penalty, and he is eloquent in his introduction to "Over Yonder" and "Billy Austin":

"I object to the damage it does to my spirit for my government to kill people, because my government is supposed to be me and I object to me killing people."