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Steve Earle's First Amendment Blues

Cover for the 'Just An American Boy' from Steve Earle.
Cover for the 'Just An American Boy' from Steve Earle.

Most pop and country music stars seem more interested in image than issues. Then there's Steve Earle, who speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about his politically charged music and the new documentary Just An American Boy: A Film About Steve Earle.

The documentary, shot over four months in late 2002 and early 2003, is now making the rounds of art film houses and festivals. It was directed by Amos Poe, an accomplished New York-based filmmaker who also shot the music video for Earle's song "Transcendental Blues" in 2000.

Born in Virginia and raised just outside San Antonio, Texas, Earle quit school after the 8th grade and has experienced quite a bit of life in his 48 years. In addition to being a successful musician, he's a writer, a poet and a recovering heroin addict who was homeless for a time in the early 1990s and spent two years in jail for drug possession.

Earle's diverse fan base in the United States and abroad has grown steadily since his 1986 debut, Guitar Town. More than a dozen critically acclaimed albums followed at a relentless pace -– with the notable exception of a four-year drought during the depths of his drug addiction and his prison term.

A longtime vocal opponent of the death penalty, Earle hinted at political themes in some of his earlier material, but turned up the heat with release of his CD Jerusalem in 2002. That album included "John Walker's Blues," written about John Walker Lindh.

Many critics saw the track as sympathetic to Lindh's decision to join Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Earle says the inspiration for the song was "a skinny, 20-year-old kid taped to a board on CNN. I happen to have a skinny, 20-year-old kid... I related to that story as a parent."

Earle is currently on tour but is anxious to get back in the studio to record his next album, which may or may not have political overtones. He says that decision will depend on the political climate. "I hope that things do change," he says, "so I can go back to writing chick songs."

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.