Country-rock Renaissance man, off-Broadway composer, Texas-bred New Yorker Steve Earle has no use for hyphens on his latest release. Arriving at a time when the music landscape is littered with “alt-“ and “indie-” and “-esque,” the album is, simply, “a country record.”
“My records are all pretty f---ing country when it gets right down to it,” he says. “I still talk like this [the last word bent into two syllables]. As rock ’n’ roll as I’ve ever tried to be, there’s still a certain amount of twang involved, no matter what I do. But this is sort of like doing it on purpose.”
A spiritual godfather to country iconoclasts such as Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Eric Church and Sturgill Simpson, Earle says the music on his 2017 Warner Bros. Records release “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw” is an ode to the rebellious, blue-collar style of country music that formed a bridge for him from Texas to Nashville, where he moved in 1974.
An appreciation for the early music of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, the collection is “an archaic form of country music,” Earle, 62, admits. He doesn’t much care.
“It’s not what’s on the radio, in the mainstream. It’s just not. And that’s fine,” Earle says by phone from a tour stop in Seattle. “I try to be as relevant as I can be, but when you get to be my age, playing music is a little bit like being a Civil War reenactor, no matter how hard you try.”
On Saturday, Dec. 16, Earle and his longtime band, the Dukes, will perform at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium, a concert originally scheduled for Sept. 8 that was postponed by Hurricane Irma.
The move from the more refined Parker Playhouse to the 1950s-era War Memorial Auditiorum suits the music, says Matt McNeil, who books both venues as vice president of programming and marketing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
“That building was around when Johnny Cash and all these guys were playing. Legends of the genre,” McNeil says of the venue, where Jerry Lee Lewis played in 1958. “Steve Earle, live from the War Memorial. That just sounds cool.”
Who’s an outlaw?
The songs on “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw” are a tour de force of Earle’s eloquent storytelling, all open roads and prison bars, broken hearts and last drops of whiskey. On the title track of the album, Earle sings, “So you wanna be an outlaw? Buddy, take it from me, this living on the highway ain’t everything it’s supposed to be.”
One of Earle’s primary motivations in making “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw” was the rehabilitation of the term itself. While it has been romanticized as a celebration of the drugs, booze and general hell-raising that was part of the culture in the “outlaw” corner of country music, Earle says the original expression was a slur assigned by Nashville overseers to certain performers who wouldn’t follow the established business model.
“Outlaw is like ‘rockabilly.’ It’s a term people other than us made up about what was going on in Texas and Nashville in the 1970s,” Earle says. “I had a guy from Australia say, ‘It was really about your lifestyle.’ And I said, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ The term referred to the fact that these guys wanted the artistic freedom that they reckoned rock acts had, that they had never been afforded. They wanted to be able to make records the way they wanted to, and that’s all it was about. Because they wanted that, they got called outlaws.”
Goodbye, Guy Clark
Earle has been nominated 11 times for Grammy Awards in country, folk and rock categories. His most recent win was in 2010 in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category for “Townes,” about his friend and musical guide Townes Van Zandt. He expects he’ll soon be devoting an album to another departed mentor, revered songwriter Guy Clark.
The “Outlaw” album includes a song about Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” that Earle began writing as he lay in a bed Clark once slept in at musician-artist Terry Allen’s home in Santa Fe, N.M. Earle was staying there after he and a group of Clark’s friends had arrived by bus from Nashville with Clark’s ashes. Clark, who died in May 2016, wanted his ashes incorporated into one of Allen’s bronze sculptures.
A musical wake in Nashville was followed by a second sendoff for Clark in Santa Fe, where Earle played “L.A. Freeway.”
“Lyle Lovett came in, Emmylou Harris came in, Robert Earl Keen came in, Joe Ely came in, Jack Ingram, and we sang a lot more songs and cried some more,” Earle says. “The next day, everybody else split. I stayed around for a few days. I was literally sleeping in the bed where Guy slept, in Terry’s studio, and I think I already had [the lyrics for ‘Goodbye Michelangelo’] banging around in my head by the time I got to the airport.”
On the song, Earle sings: “Is this goodbye till it comes my time? / I won't have to travel blind / Cause you taught me everything I know / Goodbye, Michelangelo”
The Guy Clark album will not be the next release by Earle, who says he feels an artistic and moral obligation to first share his thoughts on the country’s festering political and social divisions.
“I do feel a responsibility. At least to myself I do,” Earle says. “I didn’t know that this was going to happen when I wrote the songs for ‘Outlaw.’ ”
Earle hasn’t been shy about pointing out ruling-class hypocrisy on albums such as “Copperhead Road,” “Guitar Town” and “Washington Square Serenade.” From the last, Earle has revived “City of Immigrants,” which he has been playing on this tour as “my patriotic song.”
Earle believes these times call for lyrics that are not simply cynical and critical but analytical.
“I think it would be interesting to make a record in a country like this one that addresses why we’re where we are,” he says. “Because it wasn’t the Russians that elected this guy. It was us. And it was us losing touch with each other, and us being scared. I don’t do the we-and-them thing very much. You can’t do that in a democracy. Democracy is over when you do that.”