Photo: Chad Batka

A Look Back but a Step Forward: An Interview with Steve Earle

Steve Earle has blazed his own trails but now, at 62, he reflects on fallen heroes, chance encounters, and how he'll always be a political rabble-rouser.
Steve Earle
So You Wannabe an Outlaw
Warner Bros.

It was the mid-’70s, and Steve Earle had more than just women and good times on his mind.

“I thought about staying in Texas, but I don’t know. In Austin the weather was too good, the girls were too pretty, and the dope was too cheap. So I went to Nashville.”

One gets the feeling that all of Earle’s conversations begin this way, like the beginning of a great novel. All of the essentials are there: a narrator, a place, a premise. Exposition and foreshadowing. It’s an innate talent that has served the legendary songwriter well in his music, but this time he’s talking about the beginning of his career.

“And that’s where Waylon Jennings was,” he continues, “and that’s where Guy Clark was. I had an automatic introduction to Guy Clark because I already knew Townes Van Zandt.” After thinking about it some more, Earle repeats the key detail of the story: “So I went to Nashville.”

On his latest album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, Earle is revisiting this formative period of his career, a period that coincided with the beginning of the outlaw movement in country music that was taking root in Austin around Willie Nelson. Like most artistic movements, this one sprung up as a reaction against the constraints and conventions of the day.

“It was about the way records were getting made,” Earle explains. “A lot of country singers just had the band that they could get the cheapest on the road, by that time. And then in the studio, they used studio players. The producers hired the band and that was the way it was done. And that was the way Willie and Waylon’s records had been made up until that point. And this was about them using their own bands — and they had good bands — and having control over what they recorded and recording their own material.”

In the liner notes to the album, Earle reminisces about those days in Nashville, noting how he and other “street level scufflers” like David Olney and Richard Dobson formed the “Nashville contingent” of the outlaw movement with more established songsmiths like Guy and Susanna Clark, Steve Young, and Billy Joe Shaver. “On any given night,” Earle writes, “you could find a dozen good songwriters and a couple of great ones up late in somebody’s house or hotel room passing a guitar around and trying our most recent creations out on each other.”

But while all of this was going down in Nashville, the epicenter of the outlaw movement was back in Texas. “Without a doubt,” Earle continues, “we were surfing a shock wave that had been set off a thousand miles away in Austin by Willie Nelson.”

Fittingly, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw begins with the title track, a song that features Earle and Nelson trading verses before coming together to croon over a thick, boozy riff. “When you’re standin’ at the crossroads dontcha try to flag a ride,” they admonish, “Dontcha fall down on your knees dontcha know it’s already been tried.” A fine slice of searing honkytonk blues, it’s also a concise musical and lyrical synopsis of the outlaw ethos and lifestyle.

Earle cannot pinpoint just how far back his friendship with Nelson goes — mainly because he was still earning his spurs, so to speak, when Nelson and other musicians like Waylon Jennings were recording what would later be recognized as the seminal albums of the movement.

“I met Willie a few times back then [in the mid-’70s],” Earle recalls. “I don’t think he really paid that much attention to me. I was playing bass in Guy Clark’s band and I was around. But I was around Waylon more than I was around Willie. But I don’t even think Waylon really took notice of who I was until I started making records in the eighties. And then immediately Waylon was incredibly supportive. We were on MCA at the same time and we did shows together. He put me on shows. And he [eventually] recorded ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’ twice — once on his own, the first record he made for MCA, and once with the Highwaymen.”

It was through the Highwaymen, Earle says, that Nelson was probably forced to take notice of him. “I know one way he heard about me was his, like, grandniece heard him playing the version of ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’ by the Highwaymen when she about five or something. And he played the whole record for relatives some place and she said, ‘I don’t know. I like it better by the real guy.’ So, around then, Willie would occasionally refer to me as ‘the fucking real guy’. It’s kind of a family joke around that clan.”

Sonically, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw has all the hallmarks of country music — steel guitar, fiddle, and twang aplenty. Longtime Earle fans, however, will notice that something sounds subtly different about the album — something that’s hard to pin down at first but slowly reveals itself to be the linchpin of the album. Eventually, aside from the handful of acoustic songs, the album’s rougher edges begin to emerge, revealing a pervasive grit supplied by Earle’s 1955 Fender Telecaster.

“It’s an incredible guitar,” he marvels. “It’s absolutely intact and it’s not been fucked with. I used it on one track on The Low Highway, I think, but other than that I never used it.” The reason, Earle readily concedes, is that he avoided recording with Telecasters because they leave little room to hide one’s flaws as a guitar player.

“I avoided Telecasters because they’re kind of unforgiving guitars. I used way more forgiving, warm and fuzzy electric guitars for years. I used mostly Gibsons with two P-90 pickups that broke up really easy and hid your mistakes. You know, like Guitar Town, a lot of people think that Richard Bennett is using a Telecaster on that record. It’s not. It’s a Les Paul with two P-90s on it. That’s what’s on the whole record, except for the solo on ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ is a Strat. But there’s not a Telecaster on the whole fucking record. I was just always a little bit intimidated.”

But for Outlaw, no other guitar would do justice to the songs. “You can make other guitars sound kind of like that,” he explains, “but that takes work.” And since Earle was writing songs in the mold of one of his outlaw heroes, Waylon Jennings, he needed the spare, lean twang of a Telecaster to capture the sound he was aiming for.

“It’s country that’s built around a riff, which is what Waylon did, you know? Everything’s built around a central riff. And when we mixed it, everybody kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want your guitar that loud?’ ‘Yes, I want my fucking guitar that loud!’ It’s just the way it needs to be. These songs were designed that way. So I think it’s a look back but it’s also a step forward — for me, anyway. I grew up enough as a guitar player that I’m not scared of Telecasters anymore. And I don’t think I could have written this record if I hadn’t made all the records that I made between Guitar Town and this one.”

The combination of riff-heavy songs and guitar pushed to the front of mix results in an album that, while grounded in country, rocks nonetheless. “The Firebreak Line” scorches from beginning to end, most appropriate considering its subject matter. “Sunset Highway” is a tight coil of a song, revolving around an instantly-familiar riff that evokes open stretches of road. And “Fixin’ to Die” plods along with such propulsive force that it sounds like a Zeppelin outtake — one foot in the blues and the other in hell.

“Yeah, it’s supposed to,” Earle admits. “They borrowed some of that stuff, too. I borrowed from the same song they borrowed from and we all know what it is. But Led Zeppelin is a big deal to me. I just got all those records on vinyl, finally, about a week ago when I was doing an in-store. [As a kid], I had the first record the day it came out because I was in an old blues band when I was 13 years old and that record came out and blew our minds. And we tried to play those songs, but we couldn’t. When II came out, I was a 14-year-old boy. I’m pretty sure the first time I had sex that was the soundtrack. So I was the target audience. I don’t even think that that’s what they intended it to be, but that ended up being the audience that’s perceived to be the Led Zeppelin audience and mainly because of what guys like me that were that age did. ‘Cause we went nuts over it.”

A Steve Earle album wouldn’t be a Steve Earle album, though, without the occasional folk ballad or love song — and So You Wanna Be an Outlaw delivers on both accounts. “News from Colorado” depicts a narrator who realizes there’s no going home when home is a dysfunctional lie, while “The Girl on the Mountain” is a lament about a former lover who is never out of sight but always out of reach. Both songs are built upon finger-picked chords on an acoustic guitar, the accompanying instrumentation kept to delicate flourishes. And then there’s “This Is How It Ends” — a punchy, instantly catchy duet with Miranda Lambert that chronicles the fallout of a relationship reaching its end.

“The decision [to collaborate with Lambert],” Earle notes, “had a lot to do with seeing Guy [Clark] writing with these younger writers towards the end of his life. I made a decision to start going to Nashville and writing with people there. And I think the girls are the people that are writing the best songs in Nashville these days, to tell you the truth. So Miranda was on my list.”

Earle already knew Lambert through a series of random encounters, beginning back when Lambert recorded her first album. “She had a song on her first record and decided that it was close to one of mine. I guess my manager got a call from her manager and she just gave me half of it. And I would have never, ever come after her for that. I heard it and there were similarities but there’s nothing that I would have ever gone after anybody for, ever. I just don’t do that. I just don’t think that way. I just figure there’s only so many notes. You know, fucking people-litigating-everything-kind-of-shit just drives me nuts.”

Years later, Earle would run into Lambert at a hair salon, of all places. “My ex-wife [Allison Moorer] and her got their hair done at the same place in Nashville. So I literally met her at the beauty shop. I was dropping Allison off or picking her up to get her hair done in Nashville, you know, God, ten years ago, I guess. So we met and we bumped into her maybe twice after that.”

The chance run-ins proved to be fortuitous, allowing Earle to reach out to Lambert down the road. Finding the time to work on the collaboration, however, proved to be hit and miss. “We made an appointment, then had several false starts scheduling it between our two schedules. By the time we got it scheduled, her record was done and in the can. So we knew we were either writing it for my record or nothing. So we wrote it and then she came to Austin the day we tracked it. That’s her live on the track.”

As a bookend to his duet with Nelson that begins the album, Earle pays tribute to another one of his outlaw heroes, Guy Clark, in an acoustic dirge that brings the album to a close, “Goodbye Michelangelo”. “So long, my captain, adios,” Earle rasps, “Sail upon the sea of ghosts.” As the song progresses, the narrator seems to realize that the death of his mentor foreshadows his own: “I’m bound to follow you someday / You have always shown the way.”

“I’m 62, so you’re gonna start losing people when you get to be my age,” Earle ruminates. “You know, cancer and whatever. My whole peer group I grew up with in high school, everybody’s gone but me. Nobody would have bet that I was gonna be the survivor of that group of people — or any other group of people for that matter. But I took [Clark’s death] harder than anything because he was my teacher directly. But he was in a lot of fucking pain and really fucking miserable for the last couple or three years of his life, so I did see some mercy in it. I did. You know, I can’t help it.”

That Earle would devote So You Wanna Be an Outlaw to paying homage to and carrying the musical torch of his heroes is fitting and altogether satisfying. Amazing, actually, from start to finish. It’s an album of balance and symmetry, of poetic restraint and fiery bombast, of quiet introspection and proud defiance. But it’s somewhat out of character in its complete avoidance of political matters. Earle offers a completely logical explanation.

“When I was finishing the songs, we were touring for the Guitar Town 30th anniversary tour, so I wrote right up to November and finished a couple of things in the studio. So most of it was written by the time the election happened. I thought about writing some songs really quickly to make it more political, but I decided to let this be what it is. It was largely a musical statement.”

Those longing for the controversial Earle need not worry. The temptation to wade into political waters is too great for him to resist — especially with a certain someone occupying the White House. “Oh you mean dickhead?” he asks. After reconsidering his response, Earle offers a more deferential reply, his voice decidedly more courteous: “I’m sorry, wait a minute, that’s disrespectful. I meant President Dickhead.”

That Trump’s politics would rub Earle the wrong way is to be expected. Earle has routinely expressed left-of-center views, whether it be his disapproval of the death penalty in songs written from the viewpoint of inmates staring down execution — “Billy Austin” and “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” — or his scathing criticism of the Bush Administration that was the concept running through The Revolution Starts Now. Hell, he once even invoked Malcolm X and Woody Guthrie in the same song. That’s pretty gangster for a country singer.

“I supported Bernie Sanders,” Earle proudly proclaims. “I think we all did until he was out of the race. But I voted for Hillary Clinton. I had to vote early because I was touring and knew I was going to be out of the country. So I voted for Hillary Clinton and I thought we were gonna have the first female president of the United States when I walked on stage that night. When I walked off stage, I discovered we had the first orangutan president of the United States. I guess you can carry diversity too far, now that I think about it. So the next record is gonna be just as country as this one but waaaay more political. You can pretty much count on that.”

Steve Earle, turns out, still has more than women and good times on his mind. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw.