These days, Steve Earle is basically a movie character.
His biography reads like an amped up, Crazy Heart-style tale of addiction, redemption, and romantic woe, with roughly 10 times the number of classic tunes. And at 62 and fresh off a split with his sixth wife, Earle’s interview style is as sharp and cocksure as ever. With a new album that’s the closest to straight-up outlaw country as he’s ever gotten in three decades of twangy gems, he has a kind of unrepentant media presence that means he’s as liable to go off on a lengthy story about bluegrass legend Del McCoury as he is to throw serious shade on whoever falls into his crosshairs.
“I think it’s chicken shit to sue somebody over copyright infringement,” he interrupts when asked about the decade-old controversy involving a Miranda Lambert song that inadvertently lifted the riff from “I Feel Alright” (Lambert sings on the record). “I would never do that. There’s only so many notes.”
As it turns out, Lambert’s appearance on the record stems from one of the co-writing sessions Earle has recently started doing in Nashville, although he freely mentions having met her in passing “because she and Allison [Moorer] got their hair cut at the same place.” The way he casually mentions his ex-wife feels like prototypical Earle, as if he knows this tiny, incisive detail, delivered brashly and without affectation, can say just as much as any lengthy explanation of his latest marriage’s dissolution could.
There’s also a certain matter-of-factness to Earle’s personal life and character that always leads the conversation back to the music itself, which is still, somehow, bursting with life. His latest, the recently released So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, sees him making a record self-consciously inspired by the likes of fellow Texans like Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and Willie Nelson, the latter of whom pops up to sing a verse on the title track. It’s about as real as country music gets, in other words. And although Earle didn’t release his debut album until 1986, he’s really more of a contemporary of that era.”That’s really where I come from,” he points out. “I just didn’t get a record deal until 10 years later. The inmates were in charge of the asylum when I got to Nashville [in the late 1970s].”
The decision to make a relatively straight version of a country record now, more than 30 years into his recording career, he says, stems from just “having a really great country band right now,” more than anything else. “It’s kind of always been what I do,” he says wryly, even if Nashville and country radio has never quite picked up on it. “Even ‘Copperhead Road’ wasn’t played on country radio — but now they play it as an ‘oldie.'”
There’s a certain paint-by-numbers feeling that pervades Outlaw though, largely because of how comfortable Earle is working within and around the conventions of the form. There was a similar feel to his last effort, 2015’s straight-blues homage Terraplane. This is even despite the fact that the songs — like the fire-breathing “Fixin’ to Die” or the elegiac Guy Clark tribute “Goodbye Michelangelo” — rank among his best.
“I just want it to be the best song it can be,” he says when asked how he stays creatively vital. “I was lucky. I had really good teachers.”
There’s a way in which this record coming out in 2017 feels odd for Earle. After all, he’s been outspoken politically through much of his career, and he wrote a number of protest albums during the Bush years.
“I thought about scuttling the record and writing some more political songs,” he admits, calling Trump “the first orangutan President of the United States.” He plans to write new, more political songs on the tour for Outlaw, although he thinks he’ll likely continue the more country sound of the record and his current band.
For now, though, Earle will continue doing what he’s always done: write songs and speak his mind, as, to paraphrase one of his classic tunes, “the last of the hard-core troubadours.”