“Joan Baez could have been in this song,” Steve Earle says as he picks the gentle arpeggios of “Christmas In Washington” on his new live double-disc release. He goes on to explain that she is a hero to him because she sang the activist anthem “Joe Hill”, which made it on to the soundtrack to the movie Woodstock.
There are timeless songs, and there are timely songs; on this album, Earle seems interested in the ways in which the latter become the former. Baez (who returns the favor and covers “Christmas In Washington” on her new album, Dark Chords On A Big Guitar) was but one of his inspirations when he wrote that song; he also roll-calls Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, and even Joe Hill himself. Of these, only Guthrie was a songwriter, but all were involved in the struggles of their time, and all have become iconic figures offering inspiration long after they died.
Just An American Boy — a companion of sorts to the recent DVD release of the same name — chronicles Earle’s North American tour of the last year or so. Unlike many live albums, it is not a career overview. Though classics from the 1980s such as “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” are included, the bulk of these songs come from more recent albums. Six of the eleven cuts on Jerusalem are redone here, in dramatically powerful renditions.
Earle resists the urge to be completely polemical, but his poppier love songs are not well represented on this set. The focus, instead, is on individuals caught in the grip of history (“Jerusalem”, “The Mountain”), and on the imagined thoughts of characters far removed from everyday experience (“John Walker’s Blues”, “Billy Austin”). Earle dares to think he can make a difference by calling attention to problems, by asking questions, by searching for heroes and never giving up hope. By the time he gets to his all-out assault on Nick Lowe’s (by way of Elvis Costello’s) “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”, it’s easy to imagine some young upstart getting the idea to follow someday in Earle’s footsteps.
Say, perhaps, his son Justin, who closes the album on a pleasantly anti-climactic note with a studio recording of his song “Time You Waste”. After all that fiery, passionate, angry protest, this song’s gentle ruminations on the passage of love almost but not quite serve as a dramatic palate cleanser. Still, it’s nice to see dad give the boy a shot.