Steve Earle is a maverick. Anyone who has a passing awareness of this Texas native, his music and career trajectory path is well aware of this fact. So it goes with So You Wannabe An Outlaw, his sixteenth solo studio outing. Earle and and his backup band, The Dukes, cut a dozen songs that return him back to his country music roots for the first time since The Mountain, his 1999 bluegrass-inspired collaboration with the Del McCoury Band.
The seeds for this outing were planted when T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, who were consecutive music directors for the musical drama Nashville, reached out to Earle about tapping into his writing to order songwriting skills for a couple of songs. The results were “If Mama Could Have Seen Me,” which was used in season one and “Lookin’ For a Woman,” which was rejected by show producers for season two. With a pair of songs in his pocket and a schedule that found him putting the finishing touches on last year’s Colvin & Earle, his collaboration with fellow singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, Earle didn’t give those tunes too much thought.
“Halfway through the Colvin & Earle tour, I realized that I had alimony to pay and I had to work and make another record. I dusted them both off and realized that there’s a thread that runs through both of them and it dawned on me what it was,” he recalled.
“I always have a couple of Beatles, a couple of Stones, a couple of Waylon and a couple of Willie and a couple of Bob [Dylan] records that have been in rotation my whole life. I was listening to Honky Tonk Heroes again, which Waylon made in 1972 and an album that I really love. The two songs had that vibe and they’re both based on riffs, so I decided it was going to be a pretty electric record, so I concentrated on writing for electric guitar at that point. It’s a country record but it’s a very electric country record,” he said. “I couldn’t have made this record if I hadn’t have made all the records I made between Guitar Town and this one. I joked when somebody earlier asked me what this record was before I actually made it and I said it might have been the record I might have made if Jimmy Bowen hadn’t pissed me off after Guitar Town. It was funny, but the deal is that all the stuff that I’ve done, I don’t have a single record that I’m not proud of or any musical wave that I’ve ever made that I regret. All my regrets have to do with my personal life and not my career.”
With the wounds from his 2014 divorce from fellow singer-songwriter and seventh wife Allison Moorer still fresh, Earle used some of this pain for fodder in this collection of songs infused by a sense of love, loss and recovery. “This Is How It Ends,” is a midtempo duet with Miranda Lambert (who had her own breakup with Blake Shelton in 2015) that offers some degree of hope amid its self-explanatory title while “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” (which guests fellow rebel Wilie Nelson) and the Texas two-step-flavored “Walkin’ In LA” grapple with not letting society define you and getting through a rough patch respectively.
Fueled by an array of established artists including Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, the mid-1970s Outlaw country was a reaction against the homogenized and slickly produced material getting churned out by Music Row. As someone who arrived in Nashville in 1975 from the Lone Star State, Earle missed out on the wave, but still had enough of a frontrow seat to experience what was happening. Yet, a dozen years later, Earle would be part of another resurrection against the country music mainstream alongside fellow rebels Dwight Yoakam, k.d. Lang and Randy Travis.
“I was really kind of the Kid around the Outlaw thing but the door just closed before I got a record deal. It’s funny—I think it was [Robert] Christgau that decided me, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam were the same thing,” he explained. “Somebody said Christgau liked this record and that’s funny because he hasn’t liked a record of mine since [my 1987 debut] Guitar Town. I don’t read reviews anymore. It’s just a recovery thing and it’s not that healthy.”
Currently bouncing between solo dates and a quick co-headlining tour with Los Lobos, Earle has got multiple projects going. In addition to promoting his latest project, he’ll be featured in a PBS segment in September that finds close friend and respected filmmaker David Simon interviewing him. With the two having worked together on Simon shows like The Wire and Treme, the duo are in the talking stages about a musical based on the Sparrow’s Point section of Baltimore. And the number one priority for this 62-year-old single dad is taking care of John Henry, his seven-year-old son who is autistic and largely non-verbal that he had with ex-wife Allison Moorer, who he split with in 2014.
A Manhattan resident since moving here in 2005, Earle finds the big city not only provides great resources that help with his child’s development, but gives him ready access to major league baseball (he is an avid New York Yankees fan) and plenty of opportunities to delve into musical theater. As someone who counts Carousel as his favorite all-time musical and having recently come off of composing music for and acting in the Richard Maxwell’s Off-Broadway play Samara, Earle is unabashedly enamored of this art form. So much so that he’s at work on a musical based on Washington Square Park that he can’t talk about and is also offering his services for hire.
“I’ve hung up my shingle as a composer for musical theater. I’m available for hire to write lyrics, songs or to write a musical. To tell you the truth, for my own output, what I’m interested in are old-fashioned musicals, where the play holds up and each and every one of the songs holds up on their own, when you take them out of their environment,” Earle said with a grin. “It’s starting to happen again. Dear Evan Hansen is really good and that’s pretty inspiring. I loved Hamilton, which I saw three times, is everything that it’s cracked up to be. But it’s still an opera and not a book musical. I’m just fascinated with book musicals because it’s an American art form. We kind of invented it.”
Steve Earle will be appearing with Los Lobos on Sept. 14 at The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington. For more information, visit www.theparamountny.com or call 631-673-7300.