Steve Earle: On the Trail of an Outlaw

The Texas troubadour traces his roots and performs new songs in Paste's NYC studio.

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Steve Earle: On the Trail of an Outlaw

Some thespians may argue the point. But Steve Earle swears it’s all too true—that old theatrical condition known as opening-night jitters is very real, and it can be downright gut-wrenching. The alt-country kingpin and sometime actor recently made his off-Broadway debut in Samara, a cerebral new play by dramatist Richard Maxwell, in a shape-shifting role that began with him reading poetic stage directions. Earle was initially hired just to write the score, but his duties eventually expanded into a stage part, and there he found a whole new challenge.

“It got out of hand, and doing a play in New York is kind of a scary thing,” he said. “And during my first preview I fucked up. I don’t want to talk too much about it, but I had a very bad first performance. But the next night was pretty good.”

He sighs. “So yeah, those jitters are for real.”

Maxwell wasn’t so worried about his nervous star. “He’s got a lot of lines to say, and it was sprung on him pretty late that he had to learn this big speech,” he said. “But Steve is getting better and better, and more comfortable with the language.”

Earle was taking his part so seriously, in fact, that he had only allotted a clock-watching half-hour break during rehearsals to talk about So You Wannabe an Outlaw, his new record with his longtime backing band, The Dukes. The album, which came out June 16, marks a stylistic return to his 1986 debut, Guitar Town, which almost singlehandedly launched an era of alt-country outlaws, It also boomerangs him back to his former imprint, Warner Brothers. But this 62-year-old troubadour is no stranger to the stage. In fact, he determinedly sought it out.

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Earle performs in the off-Broadway play ‘Samara’ earlier this year.

In 2005, the three-time Grammy-winner and his then-wife, Allison Moorer, relocated from Nashville to New York City, where he hoped to become a playwright. “I moved here to breathe the same air as [Tony Award-winning playwright] Tony Kushner,” he said. That year, he wrote and produced Karla, his first play, about Texas death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in that state since the Civil War. Earle wrote what he knew—not only had he served a brief sentence for drug possession back in 1993, he had become a staunch opponent of the death penalty, regularly corresponding with inmates and even witnessing an execution.

A decade later with Samara, which follows a modern-day frontier messenger as he journeys to collect a debt from a stranger, Earle had been content to compose the intricate, Uilleann-pipes and percussion score. But Maxwell, like many film and TV directors over the years, was struck by Earle’s honey-drawled charisma and offered him a meaty role, even allowing him to keep his pendulous Smith Brothers beard. “It would take a really big part and a lot of money to get me to shave that beard off right now,” Earle said.

Maxwell first heard Earle’s music as a teenager when his brother-in-law made him a tape of Guitar Town, and he listened to it obsessively. So when he and Samara director Sarah Benson decided their play needed music, he sent Earle a draft along with a fawning fan letter. “Then he got wrangled into being in it,” Maxwell laughed. “As soon as Sarah and I heard him read the stage direction when he was hanging out at an early rehearsal—and the conceit is that the stage direction basically takes over the play—we both decided that we needed to have him in it.”

Earle is certainly accustomed to trying new things. He has written a short-story collection, Doghouse Roses, as well as a Hank Williams-inspired novel (with accompanying soundtrack), I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. He has acted in two HBO series created by auteur David Simon, The Wire and Treme, and appeared recently in director Desmond Devenish’s film Misfortune, as well as in Hank Bedford’s Dixieland. Four years ago, Earle launched his annual Camp Copperhead songwriting class in Big Indian, N.Y. (this year’s edition is set to include such guests as Dar Williams and Jackie Greene). His upcoming projects include a new musical with Simon that’s going into development; a soundtrack to a forthcoming film by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; and a Broadway musical production of Washington Square Serenade, his 2007 solo set detailing that life-changing move to New York. He hosts his own satellite radio show, Hardcore Troubadour and, in honor of his and Moorer’s son John Henry, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, an annual benefit concert for the Keswell School, dubbed John Henry & Friends. Oh, and he’s working on his second novel … and a memoir.

“Every single record that I’ve made—from the bluegrass records to the rock records that were heavily based on The Beatles—all of them are unapologetically based on a template from a record I grew up with. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era when rock ‘n’ roll had become an art form.”

Washington Square Serenade was always a musical in my head, so that’s completely my own thing,” he said. “And my plan is to write the book, the music and the lyrics for it. So there is a lot of theater in my life right now.”

It is through song, though, that Earle has crafted his most compelling mini-dramas, using a Texas vernacular and a cast of hard-luck, working-class characters drawn from real life. He set the tone with the very first line of Guitar Town, which he commemorated with a 30th anniversary tour last year: “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me/ It’s your good-rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee/ I’m just outta Austin, bound for San Antone/ With the radio blasting and the bird dog on.” Like Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and even David Lynch, Earle likes to submerge his characters in dark, ominous subcultures as alien as they are inviting, from the booby-trap-setting drug dealer in “Copperhead Road” to the armed, foreclosure-facing farmer from “The Rain Came Down,” and of course the addicts of “CCKMP,” “Oxycontin Blues,” and “South Nashville Blues.” No matter the mischief his Horatio Algers stumble into—even cold-blooded murder in the deceptively jubilant “Billy and Bonnie”—there is always a faint hope of redemption for them.

“Every single record that I’ve made—from the bluegrass records to the rock records that were heavily based on The Beatles—all of them are unapologetically based on a template from a record I grew up with,” he said. “And I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era when rock ‘n’ roll had become an art form.”

Listen to an exclusive recording of Earle performing “Copperhead Road” in 1998:

Fans who know Earle for the strident political views espoused on records like 2002’s Jerusalem (with its John Walker Lindh-inspired “John Walker’s Blues”) and 2004’s The Revolution Starts Now may be stunned to learn that, in this year of scandal-plagued government, there is no fanged political rhetoric to be found on So You Wannabe an Outlaw—not even a mention of Donald Trump. The songs, a la his vintage work, are character studies, more intent on spinning a yarn.

“I didn’t know that this was gong to happen when I wrote these songs!” he said of the election. “I wrote these songs last year, and the year before, because I was writing three different records at the same time—the blues record [Terraplane] and the Colvin & Earle record [duets with his old pal Shawn Colvin], then this record. So some of these songs are two years old.”

With his longtime guitarist Richard Bennett producing, he tracked the record in Austin last December, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s stunning election loss. Earle was a Bernie Sanders booster, but he’d accepted Clinton as the most electable candidate by November. “So I thought, like everybody else, that there was no way in hell that we would stoop to electing Donald Trump,” he said. “And I was wrong. So I guess I felt sort of disqualified to speak on politics, and I’d already written this record to be what it is.”

But have no fear, folks: “The next record will probably be as country as this one, but really fucking political.”

Read Paste’s review of So You Wannabe an Outlaw here.

For So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Earle consciously “stepped back to where I came in,” when he first blew in to Music Row from his native Houston, 13 years before he’d record his first album. He hung out with tunesmiths like Tompall Glaser, Cowboy Jack Clement, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings (to whom he dedicated the new album; a deluxe edition boasts a version of Jennings’s signature, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”). Before long he had joined the band of the late musical maestro Guy Clark, who told him at 19 that a composition wasn’t finished until it was performed for a crowd. “It was a great place to learn how to be a songwriter,” Earle recalled, “and I had really great teachers.”

Earle has attended several of his old mentors’ funerals recently, and he yearned to reconnect with that period, when Nashville buzzed with renegades like “Waylon and Willie and the boys.” Naturally, Outlaw’s title cut features backing vocals from Willie Nelson, plus some punky punch courtesy of the husband-wife duo of guitarist Chris Whitmore and fiddler Eleanor Whitmore, and a quintessentially droll Earle observation that could be directed at the faux-tough guy “bro country” genre: “So you wannabe an outlaw, buddy take it from me/ This livin’ on the highway ain’t everything it’s supposed to be.”

Watch Steve Earle perform “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” at Paste Studio:

Earle doesn’t have anything against younger country artists, per se. But he’s seen it before. “The beginning of a youth audience for country began with outlaw music,” he said. “And when Guitar Town came out, I was a relatively young country singer.” He and fellow iconoclasts like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam “were all lumped in together.”

These days, Earle is working to embrace his country progeny. One standout harmony, on the shambling “This Is How It Ends,” features the star who co-wrote it, Miranda Lambert. To push himself into new territory, Earle started making regular songwriting trips to Nashville to work with younger composers and more established ones like Lambert, who had split from Blake Shelton around the same time Earle’s marriage to Moorer—his seventh wife—was dissolving. (A sample shared sentiment: “Hand me down dress on a wasted day/ Ring in the pocket of a vest of gray/ That’s the way a cheatin’ song begins/ And this is how it ends”). Earle always regretted not writing with Clark before Clark passed away last year, so now he tries to collaborate more often. “I learn something, and I think the other writers learn something, and teaching is part of learning for me now,” he said. “That’s why I do my songwriting camp.”

On his own, Earle has effortlessly conjured colorful protagonists and antagonists, like the cell-bound convict in the gravelly rocker “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” and the homicidal beau who offs his cheating girlfriend and her paramour in the blues stomper “Fixin’ To Die.” A new tune, the mortality-themed “Sunset Highway,” was originally written for a Treme character to sing. “I was supposed to be writing a bad song, but I didn’t quite pull it off, so I kept it and recorded it,” he said. A Ray Price-inspired shuffle, “Walkin’ in LA,” wryly notes the absurdity of hoofing it in Tinseltown, and features a raspy cameo from Texas honky-tonk hero Johnny Bush. And the fiddle-fired hoedown “The Firebreak Line” tells the fable of turn-of-the-century U.S. Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski, who invented the now-standard firefighting device known as the Pulaski tool. Earle tweaked his story a bit—in the song, Pulaski rescues all of his mine-trapped men from a raging inferno in 1910, when in truth not all of them made it out alive.

Initially, “Firebreak” was the only political song on the record. “I tried to make it about the fact that these firefighters—or ‘hot shots’—are out there risking their lives for rich assholes’ houses that never should have been built in a burn zone in the first place,” he snorted. “But I decided it was better to just make it a song about hot shots, because I have a following among those guys that I didn’t realize. I fish with a fly rod, so I spend a lot of time in these places where they risk their lives, and I play gigs for a lot less money than I do other places anyplace there’s trout. So I stay in the same hotels as the hot-shot crews, and these guys are always coming up and talking to me.”

“I thought, like everybody else, that there was no way in hell that we would stoop to electing Donald Trump. And I was wrong. So I guess I felt sort of disqualified to speak on politics.”

He sighed, contentedly. “That’s as close as I’m ever going to get to writing “John Henry.””

Suddenly, a member of Earle’s management team jumped on the line to tell him that the half hour is up, he’s wanted back in rehearsals on the double. Doing theater, he pointed out, isn’t much different from his day job—singing songs for a living and telling raconteurish stories in between. Watching favorites like Bruce Springsteen and James Brown as a kid taught him how to connect with his audience. “I learned a lot from that, and those monologues that I do in my shows? Everybody that sees a lot of my concerts knows that they’re word-for-word the same, every night,” he said. “I might develop them from stuff that’s said off the cuff. But hey, once I find the shit that works, I keep it.”

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