The Last Outlaw
Steve Earle embraces his country roots with a raw and rambunctious honky tonk homage.
By Chris Gill | Photos: Justin Borucki
Steve Earle has produced such a rich and varied repertoire over his 31-year career as a recording artist that he no longer fits into any of the subgenres previously used to describe his music. When Earle released his debut album, Guitar Town, in 1986, he was initially tagged a “new traditionalist” and grouped with similar-minded country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis, who also released debut albums in 1986. However, Earle almost instantly veered off in an entirely different direction a couple years later with the hard-edged rock-inspired sound of Copperhead Road. Since then Earle has also explored bluegrass, folk, blues, punk and Irish folk sounds—sometimes in the course of a single album—earning himself acclaim within alt-country and even indie rock circles. Over the last two years he’s released a bona fide blues album (2015’s Terraplane), a contemporary singer-songwriter folk collaboration with Shawn Colvin (2016’s Colvin & Earle) and a straight-up country album (this year’s So You Wannabe An Outlaw).
The name of Earle’s new album may offer the description that has fit him the best over all of these years—outlaw. Inspired primarily by Waylon Jennings’ influential outlaw country classic Honky Tonk Heroes, So You Wannabe An Outlaw was initially conceived as Earle’s nod to country’s great original outlaw artists like Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. The album also marks Earle’s bold return to pure, unadulterated country, something that many of his fans have clamored for since Guitar Town.
“A lot of people asked me to make another country record,” Earle says, “but I didn’t make this record for them. I made it for myself. I’m really proud of these songs, and song to song it’s pretty consistent. Some people think I should have made a record like this a long time ago, but this record wouldn’t be what it is if I hadn’t made The Mountain, Jerusalem, Washington Square Serenade and all of the other things that I’ve done. Everything that I’ve done up until this point informs this record. It’s the culmination of it all in some ways.”
By the standards that constitute most country music these days, the outlaw tag fits Earle like a pair of custom-made cowboy boots. Whereas most of today’s country artists either lean towards the right politically or simply aren’t politically involved at all, Earle is an unapologetic socialist who was a steadfast Bernie Sanders supporter and has candidly expressed opposition to the death penalty, the growing gap between the rich and poor and America’s involvement in various recent wars. Instead of staying in Nashville to remain close to the music industry like an increasing number of performers, Earle instead settled in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 2005, often mentioning in interviews that he moved there because he “feel(s) safe being able to walk out my door and see a same-sex biracial couple walking down the street, see any movie or buy any book I want.”
As Earle looks out his apartment’s back window and points out the building where Bob Dylan once lived, it’s easy to see that he’s inspired by the artistic spirit that still thrives in downtown Manhattan. His focus suddenly shifts to the various pieces of artwork hanging on his walls, and he tells brief stories about each item, which includes original artwork and signed prints by R. Crumb, Tony Fitzpatrick (whose original artwork for most of Earle’s albums is on display), Ealy Mays, John Schooler and Kurt Vonnegut, amongst others. The multitude of books lining his shelves reveals an inquisitive nature, and the various toys strewn about—a mini Ludwig drum set in one corner and various flying and boomerang-style contraptions on the kitchen and living room coffee tables—show that he’s also a dedicated father to his seven-year-old son, John Henry.
Manhattan was Earle’s desired final destination many years ago when he left San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 19, but along the way he stopped in Nashville and stayed to seek income working as a songwriter there. “I was around when Waylon Jennings was recording Dreaming My Dreams,” he says. “I was there with Paul Craft when they recorded his song ‘Keep Me from Blowing Away.’ [Jennings’ recording of the song is well documented, but it was never released.] It’s hard to believe that Paul is gone now.”
Having released Honky Tonk Heroes just the year before, Jennings was in the early stages of his transformation to an “outlaw country” artist. In tribute to that moment, Earle recorded a cover of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” that is available with three other cover recordings (“Ain’t No God in Mexico” from Honky Tonk Heroes and penned by Billy Joe Shaver and “Sister’s Coming Home” and “The Local Memory” by Willie Nelson) on the deluxe version of So You Wannabe An Outlaw.
“Honky Tonk Heroes is one of a handful of albums that I go back to a lot,” Earle explains. “After I finished Terraplane, I had a hint that I wanted to do an album like that, and by the time I finished Colvin & Earle I knew exactly what this album was going to be. Before that, T-Bone Burnett asked me for some songs for the first season of the television series Nashville. I gave him ‘If Mama Coulda Seen Me,’ and they liked it and used it. Then Buddy Miller became the musical director of Nashville, and he also asked me for a song. I wrote ‘Lookin’ for a Woman’ for that, but he didn’t use it. When Colvin & Earle was done, I started thinking about what my next record was going to be. My deal with New West was completed, so I had to have something to tell somebody so I could get a new record deal. I looked at those two songs I had written and realized that there was a vibe about them. That’s what I decided this record was going to be.”