Writer Iain Patience had a long talk with Steve Earle, on the almost-eve of Earle’s latest release, So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Warner Bros.), available everywhere June 16. A tremendous songwriter in his own right, Earle has kept company with some of the best outlaw writers country music—or any music—has spawned. (As a teenager, Earle spent so much time with Townes Van Zandt that he named his firstborn Justin Townes Earle.) In writing and in lifestyle, Earle learned from the best.
If there’s anyone out there in musicland who might truly be described as an “outlaw,” it must surely be Steve Earle, a rabble-rousing, rebellious guy who has been there and done it all—repeatedly, it often seems. Few, if any, of the current crop of Nashville superstars can, and do, admit to having spent time at the Federal Government’s expense sheet. But for Earle, it was just part of life, youthful wildness combined with naivety, now long -lost chimeras. He is swift to recount the day as an inmate when he received a postcard, a photo of the late Waylon Jennings sporting a red bandana while playing a gig. The inscription in Jennings’ hand-written script simply read, “I’m wearing the bandana for you.” Two outlaws together.
With another sure-fire, winning album just about to hit the street, So You Wannabe An Outlaw, on Warner Bros., Steve Earle is unusually upbeat and happy to chat about where he’s at and what he’s up to right now. When I pick out one track, “Fixin’ To Die,” and suggest it seems dark, foreboding and brooding, he is quick rising to the bait to dispel the thought telling me not to take it in any truly literal sense: “It’s not that dark, don’t look at it like that. Sure it has edges but it ain’t meant to be depressing” he laughs.
Earle is happy to reminisce, to look back on a career that has picked up three Grammy awards, universal international acclaim and numbers recorded by countless mainstream “big star” performers including Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Carl Perkins. Recalling his arrival as a late-teenager in Nashville, he jokes about the melting-pot the place then was, with country music legends still out there being seen, drinking and Hell-raising into the night:
“I was the Kid when I arrived in Nashville, assuming that mantle from Rodney Crowell as he shipped off to the coast to front Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. On any given night you could find a dozen good songwriters and a couple of great ones up late in somebody’s house or a hotel room passing a guitar around and trying our most recent creations out on each other. There was no caste system. Established writers like Guy (Clark – and don’t forget Susanna), Steve Young and Billy Joe Shaver rubbed elbows with street level scufflers like myself, David Olney and Richard Dobson. Out of town luminaries, the likes of Roger Miller, Mickey Newbury and even Neil Young, occasionally would fall by. On your way home you could stumble over to J.J.’s Market and find Waylon-By-God-Jennings and Tompall Glazer banging away on adjacent pinball machine until sunrise. It was fucking glorious.”
With the release of his latest album, So You Wannabe An Outlaw on Warner Bros. in Mid-June, Earle seems to have remained wedded to his politicised, liberal principles while also drawing on a determinedly more introspective glow at times. Tracks cover the usual Earle bases, dealing with love, loss, inequality, futility; and, at times, a streak of optimism rises to the surface. Clearly missing his old buddy, song-writing legend Guy Clark who passed away last year, the album closes with a truly emotional tribute that in many ways sums up Clark’s outstanding position, prominence and importance, in a track entitled “Goodbye Michelangelo.”
When I ask about this particular number, Earle immediately confirms its place, its personal meaning and importance to him: “A bunch of us, Rodney Crowell and others, all travelled down to New Mexico with Guy’s ashes where we’re having a special casket made for them,” he says with hints of both tristesse and humour in his voice.
With the latest release dedicated to the memory of his old mentor and influence, Waylon Jennings, Earle is in a more sombre, reflective mood when he adds:
“But I’ve been attending an awful lot of funerals lately and maybe that, alone explains my sudden need to acknowledge where I come from, to revisit the solid foundation upon which I have constructed this house of cards of mine. Maybe it’s just looking in the mirror at “the age in my eyes” and remembering that in spite of the obvious math, nobody that knew me back then, when I was 20 and Waylon was 38, would have ever believed that I’d still be here today and he’d be gone all this time.”
Earle is never a guy to dwell on the gloomier side of life, however, and quickly moves on reaffirming his pleasure at just still being around, a survivor and troubadour with an eye for the ridiculous and the profound both in his remit. When I return to the theme of his early years in Nashville he again laughs and describes its relevance to him with a tinge of sorrow for what he believes has been lost along the musical way:
“We were the Night Shift, denizens of a nocturnal Nashville that no longer exists, a brief and shining moment when the inmates were clearly in charge of the asylum. Without a doubt we were surfing a shock wave that had been set off a thousand miles away in Austin by Willie Nelson (who guests on the title track of the new album.) But for us, the Nashville contingent, in the winter of 1975, the center of our universe was Waylon Jennings. He led and we followed and for a minute there it looked for all the world like a change had finally come and we would reshape Music City in our own individual images.
“Nowadays, it’s the women in reality who are leading the way, producing the best country music, the more interesting stuff,” he reckons. “They’re doing stuff without guilt, with fuckin’ strength. It’s still a good time to be out there.”