In Advance of His Kent Stage Concert, Steve Earle Talks About What It Means to Be an 'Outlaw'

Last year when Steve Earle performed at the Music Box Supper Club on his tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his seminal album Guitar Town, he left the audience with a warning.

The left-leaning singer-guitarist cautioned “don’t fuck up” as he encouraged patrons to get out and vote for the next U.S. president.

What does he have to say now that Donald Trump has become president?

“We fucked up,” he says in a recent phone interview from an Asheville tour stop. He comes to the Kent Stage on July 23. “I was shocked. I went on stage in Canada thinking that we would elect the first woman president of the United States. She wasn’t my first choice. I was a Bernie [Sanders] guy, but I voted for her. Then, I came off stage to discover we had elected the first orangutan president. By god, I believe you can take diversity too far. I believe we may be proving that. It’s a bummer, and it’s shocking. I had friends who were in tears that night, and I was texting with a friend of mine who still hasn’t recovered. It melted her down.”

Earle’s career officially began in the 1970s when he started playing guitar in country icon Guy Clark’s band. His big breakthrough came with 1986’s Guitar Town, an album that established him as a tremendous talent in the alt-country world. Inspired by a Bruce Springsteen concert, Earle penned songs with a narrative approach, and they struck a chord. The album’s nine songs alternately suggest Earle's rockabilly roots and his admiration for anthemic rock 'n' roll.

He’s referred to his latest effort, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, as a something of a sequel to Guitar Town. The Guitar Town tour, however, didn’t inspire the album's concept.

“The idea for this record was in place before I decided to do the Guitar Town tour,” he says, adding that he wrote the songs before he knew that Trump would become president and even thought about not releasing the album because the songs are so apolitical. "The songs on the next album will be political," he promises.

Earle had written a couple of songs for the TV show Nashville because the program’s music directors, T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, had asked him for songs. After stumbling across the songs on his computer desktop, he discovered that they had a thread to them and a “strong vibe.”

“I realized what it was,” he says. “I had been listening to Honkytonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings. There’s a few records always in rotation — a couple of Beatles, a couple of Stones, a couple of Waylon, a couple of Willie [Nelson], a couple of Merle [Haggard], a couple of Bob [Dylan]. Honkytonk Heroes had been in rotation and I thought that’s maybe what I should do and it could rehabilitate the term ‘outlaw’ which gets used as if the focus was just taking drugs. They were called outlaws because they wanted to make records the way they wanted to make them. That happened in the ’70s and then again in the mid-’80s with me a few other people.”

The album’s title track relies upon a retro-sounding guitar riff and a bit of slide guitar as Earle slurs his way through the song. “You better not pout and you better not cry,” he sings defiantly.

“It’s just the idea about having a conversation with an imaginary kid, but the actual audience is people who never played a fucking note of music in their lives and probably coined the term ‘outlaw’ in the first place,” he says when asked about the song’s meaning. “It’s more aimed at you than it is anybody else — no offense. There’s no offense intended. It’s saying, ‘Hey, this is what it really is.’”

The fast tempo “The Firebreak Line” features a bit of fiddle and rapid-fire vocals as Earle practically raps his way through the song and gives a shoutout to Ed Pulaski, a famous firefighter who created the Pulaski tool and famously bullied his crew into a mineshaft and held them there at gunpoint to save their lives.

“I just thought that hotshot firefighters needed a song,” says Earle. “I fish on a flyrod so I spend some time on dry, high remote places. I see them loading their equipment up to protect some rich asshole’s house that shouldn’t have been built there in the first place It’s a real life folk song, and I’m really proud of it."

The tender ballad “This is How It Ends” successfully pairs Earle’s raspy vocals with the supple voice of Miranda Lambert as the two appropriately sing about failed relationships.

“It was a blast,” says Earle when asked about working with Lambert. “We’ll probably even do it again.”

The brittle album closer “Goodbye Michelangelo” serves as a tribute to the late Guy Clark.

“[Clark] was my teacher, and it was hard the last couple of years of his life,” says Earle. “I learned from him. One of the reasons I co-wrote that song with Miranda was because guys have started co-writing with younger writers. He initially taught me not to co-write. He changed his mind about that, and it kept him writing. Because of his example, I decided to start co-writing with some younger writers. There’s a little vampire to it. Those songs are connected in that sense.”

Even though the new songs sound more country than the alt-country anthems for which Earle is known, Earle says the new and older material meshes well, in part, because his band the Dukes can play such a wide range of music.

“We can play some stuff with my first few records that we couldn’t really play right before,” he says. “We have steel guitar and keyboards, and there’s now some stuff in the set that we haven’t done in years.”

Steve Earle & the Dukes, the Mastersons, 8 p.m. Sunday, July 23, the Kent Stage, 175 East Main St., 330-677-5005. Tickets: $35-$42,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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