October 2, 2003

Test Spin: Steve Earle

Print More

Steve Earle is an original artifact. His country-twang holds as much authenticity as the Man in Black’s (Johnny Cash) unmistakable baritone. Like Cash, the outspoken Earle relies on the folk-country tradition to deliver his criticism of the establishment. A powerful storyteller and a citizen conflicted by his love of country and mistrust of the government, Earle doesn’t need his music to be revolutionary simply because his insightful lyrics do all the work on their own.

Just an American Boy is a two disc collection of live tracks and in between song musings from Earle. Billed as an “audio documentary,” the album has Earle playing songs from all different points of his career, everything from the classic bootlegging ballad of “Copperhead Road” to the recent criticism of middle-aged political complacency in “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best That We Can Do).” Throughout the career-wide selection of songs, Earle proves that the fine edge of his folk-political commentaries has never lost it sharpness.

In the live setting, Earle’s music feels raw, stripped-down, and honest. His snarling voice lashes out over the clang of electric guitar, walking bass-lines, occasional string accompaniment, and pounding, arena-rock drums. Though a live performance can sometimes feel impersonal in a large venue, Earle addresses his audience casually, as if they were his closest friends. The album allows the listener to hear Earle spouting his political beliefs, such as a defense of his patriotism though he is critical of the state and his explanation of why he opposes the death penalty.

Earle remains most persuasive in song: just take the previously mentioned “Amerika v. 6.0.” In his bitting, conversational singing style, he belts out, “We got accountants playin’ God and passin’ out the pills/ Yeah, I know that sucks — that your HMO ain’t doing what you thought it would do/ But everybody’s gotta’ die sometime and we can’t save everybody/ It’s the best we can do.” During the midst of the song’s climax, Earle sarcastically yells out “Let’s go blow up Iraq/ I mean, Iran/ I mean, North Korea/ I mean Syria” to mock the latest American foreign policy debates surrounding the “War on Terrorism.” Just an American Boy is a must have for any folk-rocker looking for a healthy dose of the political in his/her music.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman