Steve Earle brings ‘Outlaw’ sessions to MACC
An evening with folk country-rock troubadour
Releasing around 15 studio albums since his “Guitar Town” debut in 1986 and having his songs recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle recently released the acclaimed country- rock album “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.”
For the title track, he called on an old friend, Willie Nelson, to sing and play guitar with him.
“We got Willie’s vocal in Maui,” he says. “I wrote a verse for him to sing. Poor me I had to go to Maui to get Willie’s voice.”
“So you wanna be an outlaw, better take it from me/Living on the highway, ain’t everything it’s suppose to be,” Earle sings over twanging guitars.
“People don’t want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself because you’re riding around in a bus that costs more than their house, but it’s about that this is something that not everybody can do,” he says. “I talk about it as if you’re a real outlaw. It’s about rehabilitating the term outlaw.”
In the 1970s, artists such as Jennings, Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser gave country music a grittier edge. It became known as “outlaw country.” In 1976, the compilation album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring songs by Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Glaser, became the first country album to be platinum-certified, reaching sales of one million.
“People look back at that period and want to talk about it in terms of drugs and alcohol and lifestyle, but it’s not, it’s about artistic freedom,” he continues. “One of the people who doesn’t get enough credit is Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados). Doug introduced Willie to Jerry Wexler who signed Willie to Atlantic and he made ‘Shotgun Willie’ and ‘Phases & Stages.’ Waylon Jennings heard that and started to make records the way he wanted to. Willie went on to Columbia and made ‘Red Headed Stranger,’ and the rest is history. And Waylon made ‘Honky Tonk Heroes,’ a whole record of Billy Joe Shaver songs. To me that record’s like ‘Beatles for Sale’ and ‘Exile on Main St.’ and ‘(The) Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.’ I go back to it over and over again.”
With potent songs about outlaws, heroic firemen and prisoners on death row, Earle dedicated his latest album to Jennings.
“Waylon fascinated me the most,” says Earle. “He was just different; he played electric guitar and this record is pretty country and pretty electric. I got over my fear of the back pickup of a Fender Telecaster and went for it. Musically I’m looking back on this whole record because that’s where I come from. I left Texas in ’74 and went to Nashville. I had one foot in Austin and one foot in Nashville.”
PopMatters lauded “More than 30 years after his stellar debut, Earle has once again returned to his country roots, crafting a near-perfect country record.”
And the British music magazine Uncut hailed the album as his “best collection in more than a decade,” offering an “often harrowing portrait of the outlaw genre.”
“It’s an overtly country record on purpose,” Earle adds. “It’s almost like a prequel to ‘Guitar Town,’ if I had had a record deal when I was 20. I was 31 when ‘Guitar Town’ came out.”
The seeds of the album were sown when legendary producer T Bone Burnett called Earle and asked him to compose a song for the TV series “Nashville,” about a character whose brother was in prison. He wrote the mournful “If Mama Coulda Seen Me.” Another prison song on “Outlaw,” the fiercely rocking “Fixin’ to Die,” reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” captures an inmate on death row heading for hell.
“‘If Mama Coulda Seen Me’ was the first song I wrote for the record,” he says. “Then the (“Nashville“) new musical director, Buddy Miller, also wanted a song. When I started thinking about a record, I dusted those two off. What Waylon did was like country-riff rock, everything was built around a strong guitar riff. That was the hook for the new record.”
Then there’s “Walkin’ in LA,” where honky-tonk star Johnny Bush joins Earle on a song about living on the streets, watching the city’s affluent roll by in their Lexus and Mercedes luxury cars.
“I didn’t end up homeless in L.A., but I came close,” he says. “My ex-wife took me back to Tennessee and kind of dumped me, and I did end up homeless.”
A three-time Grammy winner, Earle began his career writing songs in Nashville for artists like Carl Perkins and Johnny Lee and playing bass with the late Guy Clark, who became a mentor for him and is honored on “Outlaw” with “Goodbye Michelangelo.”
In 1986, Earle’s breakthrough album “Guitar Town” topped the Billboard country album charts, receiving two Grammy nominations, and later included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
An AllMusic review declared one of the album’s songs, “Someday,” “the best Bruce Springsteen song the Boss didn’t write.”
By his third album, “Copperhead Road,” in 1989, Earle had crafted what he called the world’s first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass. The title track about a returning Vietnam vet attacked the war on drugs, and “Snake Oil” compared President Ronald Reagan to a traveling con man. Rolling Stone proclaimed the album, “as powerful as any music made this year.”
In later years, his acclaimed albums included “El Corazon,” where he mixed bluegrass, traditional country, hard rock and vintage R&B. Then the Gulf War-influenced “The Revolution Starts Now,” in 2004, earned him his first Grammy Award.
The rousing title track reflected influences of both the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
“I grew up on The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and Johnny Cash,” he says. “The first concert I ever saw was The Beatles when I was 10 years old at the Houston Coliseum. It was like being inside of a jet engine. I came from the folky side of things. My dad would never let me have an electric guitar. I was a kid with long hair and cowboy boots.”
Besides overtly political songs, “The Revolution Starts Now” included a tongue-in-cheek valentine to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “You be the flower and I’ll be the bumblebee,” he crooned on “Condi, Condi.”
Did he ever get a response from her?
“No. On a whim a publicist who worked for the label called Rice’s office asking for a comment. The response was, ‘I don’t believe she will be responding.’ “
In 2015, he turned to the blues, releasing the smoking “Terraplane,” noting in the liner notes, “everybody’s sick of all my happy songs anyway.” Taking its title from a 1930s Hudson Motor Car Co. model, it rivaled the Stone’s recent blues output.
“I’m lucky I got to Houston just in time to see Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb in the same room,” he explains. “I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan and saw Johnny Winter a lot. It’s a big part of who I am. The second concert I saw was Canned Heat, and I watched ZZ Top evolve. The record’s really based on (Howlin’) Wolf and those Chess Records, and also on Canned Heat and ZZ Top.”
Various artists have recorded his songs over the years including The Highwaymen featuring Cash, Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Jennings, who opened their final album, “The Road Goes On Forever,” with Earle’s song “The Devil’s Right Hand.”
Was it exciting for him to hear their version?
“It was weird because it was a really dark part of my life when it got recorded,” he reveals. “I was pretty much homeless. I didn’t even know they had recorded it. It was the same thing with Emmy (Emmylou Harris) recording ‘Guitar Town.’ But just as I got sober, the record came out and it was a big deal.”
Jennings had previously recorded “The Devil’s Right Hand” before suggesting it to the The Highwaymen.
“He also wore a bandana on his wrist every show he did while I was locked up (in prison). It’s a trademark of mine.”
Looking to the future, Earle is already composing songs for a forthcoming “political” album.
“People were a bit disappointed this record wasn’t more political because of when it was released,” he notes. “But I had all the songs written by the time the election happened. The next record is going to be just as country and electric, but way more political. I’ve already started writing again.”
Making his Maui concert debut 7:30 p.m. Dec. 29 at McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, Earle has been heading to our island around Christmastime for the last three years, ever since meeting Ram Das in Huelo.
“For my 60th birthday, my manager brought me to Maui to meet Ram Das,” he explains. “It was something I’d always wanted to do. I know other people on Maui. Kris Kristofferson is up the other end of the island and Willie’s (Nelson) there. I read ‘Be Here Now’ when I was probably 16. I’ve read it several times since, and I’m finally starting to get it. It’s hard to describe anyone in one sentence, but Ram Das is about loving everybody. And he means it and we need that right now. I’m having a hard time loving Donald Trump, but I’m not Ram Das.”