Steve Earle is a country-rock singer with an attitude, both poetic and angry, perceptive and stark, often in the same song. Having just released his 16th album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, he's hit the road and will be in Memphis on Saturday. As I'd always been impressed with Earle's dexterity at injecting political awareness into his songs, the lack of lyrics about the current state of our union in his first post-Trump release came as a bit of a surprise. Naturally, that was the first thing I asked him about.
The Memphis Flyer: You've often expressed a level of political awareness in your music that you don't often hear from other country-rockers, but I don't get that as much from the new record.
Steve Earle: Well, I try to find the human part of it — to tell stories and create characters that are affected by the things that I see happening politically. And I still write political songs. I wrote one for Joan Baez, for her record she's working on with Joe Henry right now. But this record I just made because I was reconnecting to where I came in when I got to Nashville in 1974. That became interesting to me musically for a lot of reasons. Basically, I wrote the songs not knowing that this [presidency] was gonna happen, and then the election happened in November. It was literally three weeks later that we started the record. And I thought about scuttling it and writing some new songs quickly and making it more political. But I said, You know what? Let's just let this record be what it is.
I supported Bernie Sanders, until he was out of the race, and then I voted for Hillary Clinton. I went on stage November 8th, thinking the worst that was gonna happen was Hillary Clinton being president of the United States, which ... we know what that is, and it would have been the first woman to be president of the United States. And I came off stage, and we had elected the first orangutan to be president of the United States. So I just wasn't prepared for that. I guess you can let diversity go too far sometimes.
So this record is inspired by the first days of Outlaw Country?
I kinda have this unique perspective on the term "Outlaw." I'm from Texas. I was at the Dripping Springs Reunion — I bought tickets; about that time, all of the sudden Willie Nelson moves back, and Doug Sahm moves back, which a lot of people forget about. And it was Doug who suggested to Willie that he play [Austin counterculture hot spot] Armadillo World Headquarters. Doug introduced Willie to Jerry Wexler, and that's how Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages got made. And then Waylon Jennings hears those records.
Those guys figured out that rock acts had artistic freedom they didn't have. And that's what Outlaw's about; it's not about getting f*cked up. Look, George Jones was not going to a liquor store at 4:30 in the morning on a lawn mower. There aren't any liquor stores open in Tennessee at 4:30 in the morning. He was going someplace else, to get something else. Country singers have always taken drugs, all that shit. But these guys wanted to make records the way they wanted to, that's why they got called Outlaws.
Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes is one of my very favorite records. And that record sounds like it does because Waylon got to do what he wanted to do. It's all built around his electric guitar. And this new record is built around me on the back pickup of a Fender Telecaster. It's full of great guitar tones.
It's a 1955 Telecaster through an AC50 [Vox amp]. And then Chris [Masterson] is playing a lot of baritone guitar on this record, a Collings baritone that he used. This record is a connection to the past, but it's also the future. It's new a musical direction. I love this band, this configuration with Ricky Ray Jackson on steel and Brad Pemberton on drums. The rest of the band [including Masterson, Kelly Looney on bass, and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle] has been together for a long time and Ricky's come along and made it hit this other level. And I'm really interested in that musically, so. ... Now we'll be on tour, and I'll start writing songs for this band. And the next record will be just as country as this one, and way more political, is my guess.
Steve Earle and the Dukes play Minglewood Hall Saturday, July 8th, at 8 p.m., with opening band The Mastersons.