NPR First Listen -- Steve Earle

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Steve Earle has had a diverse and checkered career, but a few common threads run through each of his records. He champions the little guy and mocks the world's self-styled titans. He paints on a canvas called "country," but makes room for folk, rock and rootsy protest music of all stripes. And he celebrates the past — generations that inspired him, performers who influenced him — without wallowing in cheap, sepia-toned nostalgia. Along the way, Earle has been an outlaw, an activist and an even an incarcerated drug offender, but he's always found his way back to music that feels pure and plainspoken.

In recent years, Earle seems to have found a more comfortable place in his life — he married another uncompromising country singer, Allison Moorer, and raised one of his own in singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle — while turning his attention to music that fuses timeless sounds with present-day concerns. In 2009, Steve Earle made a well-liked tribute to his son's namesake, a collection of Townes Van Zandt covers called Townes. For his follow-up, he's found a natural collaborator in like-minded producer T Bone Burnett.