For someone generally thought of as a country artist, Steve Earle sure hasn’t made many country albums. Recent years have found him more in singer-songwriter/activist mode, forgoing any semblance of straight country in favor of following his own idiosyncratic songwriting muse. And to be sure, it’s been a fine path in and of itself, one full of solid songs, politically pointed lyrics and a fair share of Earle’s inimitable attitude. But none have quite lived up to the promising contemporary outlaw country direction in which his career initially seemed bound for. Now, more than 30 years after his stellar debut, Earle has once again returned to his country roots with So You Want to Be an Outlaw.
What better way to reaffirm one’s status as a true country outlaw that by bringing in one of the originators of the outlaw country ideal in Willie Nelson to help sing the opening, title track? It’s a declarative statement from the outset that shows Earle to still be just as capable of crafting a near-perfect country record as he was when he burst onto the scene with 1986’s Guitar Town. More so than much of his recent material, it’s an album predicated on universal sentiments and relatable situations and emotions, each part of the bedrock of country music history.
Of course, he’s released country music in its myriad offshoots in the intervening decades but rarely has he so fully re-immersed himself in the scene in which he originally made a name for himself. Like his predecessors, Earle was then as now the prototypical Nashville outside, the outlaw left to his own devices and refusing to play the game the way the suits intended. It’s a guise that has always suited well—perhaps a bit too literally in the early ‘90s—and one that has seen him name-checked by the newest crop of country outlaws.
More than a mere celebratory victory lap, So You Want to Be an Outlaw is a lean, tough country album delivered in true Steve Earle fashion. His voice, a wizened, throaty rasp virtually dripping vitriol (see in particular the opening few bars of “The Firebreak Line”, itself something of a callback to “Copperhead Road”), sounds as fine as ever here. Songs like the superlative “News from Colorado” manage to reconcile his work of the last several decades with his early country persona, all keening steel guitars, mournful fiddles and purposeful acoustic guitar picking. Always an excellent storyteller, here Earle again creates a series of short stories and character studies in miniature, imbuing his characters with the classic country afflictions of heartache, loneliness, and regret.
Meanwhile, “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” is a lean, mean country rock number that updates the late Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with more 21st century sensibilities. It’s not often you hear country songs about being incarcerated anymore, the outlaw sobriquet having become commercialized and sanitized for mass public consumption. “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” helps right that wrong in a big way, joining a long line of classic prison songs.
Closing track “Goodbye Michangelo” is a stark, bittersweet ballad featuring just Earle and his guitar. “Goodbye maestro, fare thee well/you’ve gone to heaven but been to hell/or maybe just New Mexico,” he croaks in a voice just this side of Tom Waits. It’s one of many tracks that explore the typically Earleian themes of wasted potential, women troubles and life on the other side of the tracks. Each is given a tight delivery that helps add to their overall lyrical and emotional impact.
Here Earle too benefits from a newfound brevity; nothing here breaks the four-minute mark making for a tight 12 tracks clocking in at just under 40 minutes. In this, So You Want to Be an Outlaw is a true album, each track flowing one to the next, aided by the overarching thematic outlaw country imagery recently resuscitated by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Indeed, now is the perfect time for artists like Earle and Nelson (who has also had a great year with God’s Problem Child, also a full-on return to outlaw country) to remind those newer to the music that there is a rich tradition well worth exploring.
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