Renegade country star on his new album and collaborations with Miranda Lambert & Willie Nelson
Steve Earle returned to Texas to make So You Wannabe an Outlaw, the country crooner’s first record ever to be made in his home state. He spent 33 years in Nashville and the last decade in New York City, but Austin and hit roots called him back. The result, an LP full of the kind of outlaw country we’ve come to expect from one of the genre’s most authentic voices.
He’s no stranger to Texas and knows the Austin scene, but he found it was the right time to finally return. But in order to make the record right, he knew he needed to change things up, which meant, for him, trying his hand at co-writing, and bringing WIllie Nelson as well as Miranda Lambert into the fold.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Earle to discuss this roots of outlaw country, to find out what was in Texas he couldn’t get anywhere else, and to learn what moments have touched him over the course of his storied career.
Christopher Friedmann: So we are talking because you are about to release your new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Steve Earle: I’m fine. I’ve been looking forward to going out and playing this. This is the best band I’ve ever had, and that’s the band that made this record. It’s been a thing that’s been kind of organically moving towards this for a long time, and with this record I finally hired a steel player – first time in years – and this record is pretty country, at least what my idea of country music is when I play it. It’s very not political, which surprises some people, but I didn’t know this s*** was gonna happen.
The next record I imagine, we’re going to go out and tour and then we’ll start thinking about another record, I’m really sort of intrigued by this music direction and the way this band plays, so I’d love to write more songs for it, so maybe the next record will be just as country, but way more political. And that could be interesting simply because a lot of what happened to us in this little debacle is forgetting that there were people in the middle of the county who felt like they were completely and totally forgotten. Maybe a record that gives them a voice, I’ve done that before, but maybe it is time to do that. I’ll be travelling around the country for the rest of this year and the next year, and I’ll be trying to listen as much as talk and head towards writing another record.
CF: This album is an homage to Outlaw music and is dedicated to the late Waylon Jennings. As someone who learned their craft in Nashville, what has the outlaw scene meant to you, as I’ve always viewed it as a push away from Nashville?
SE: Well, Waylon made Honky Tonk Heroes in Nashville and I don’t think he ever went anywhere else to record. This is the first record I’ve ever recorded in Austin. It’s kind of weird because where I connect to it all is just before I moved to Nashville, a few years before happened.
One thing was Doug Sahm moved back – his is the part that everybody missed about the chronology of all this – Dough Sahm moved back from Mill Valley to San Antonio, and then figured out he was too weird for San Antonio. And I know when he moved back because he moved into the neighborhood where I lived, and he was one of our local rock and roll heroes, so I stalked him, and I met his daughter and got her to take me home so I could stand in the driveway and wait till I met Doug. She went to the same school I just dropped out of. Then Doug comes back to Austin, Willie comes back to Austin.
Doug is the person who suggested to Willie he could play Armadillo World Headquarters, instead of just country joints. And Doug is the person who introduced Willie to Jerry Wexler, and Wexler signed Willie to Atlantic and WIllie made Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. Waylon saw that Willie got to make a record he wanted to, and that was foreign to country artists. They figured that rock artists had an artistic freedom that did not have.
That’s what outlaw is about. Suddenly this revolt happened. Waylon made Honky Tonk Heroes, but they didn’t release it for another year. He made it in ‘72, same year as Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie.
Waylon had just moved recently to Nashville from Arizona, which is where he had lived all along for years. I’m pretty sure I was there when Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote all the songs on Honky Tonk Heroes, and Waylon Jennings met. I mean I was in the audience. I was at the first Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in the audience.
Meanwhile, by this time I know Townes Van Zandt. I’m thinking about living in Houston, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. And everyone is trying to tell me, “Move to Austin. You don’t need to go to New York or L.A. or Nashville or anyplace, it’s all gonna happen here. Austin was… the idea of Kris Kristofferson having been there before everybody else. I knew Guy Clark was in Nashville and I had really gotten into Guy’s songs.
I decided Austin, the weather is too good, the girls are too pretty, dope’s too cheap, I won’t get anything done here, and I went to Nashville. When I got there, I fell right into Guy’s crowd and that sort of gave me a connection to a lot of things that were going on. There was sort of a bluegrass thing that was around John Hartford and there was songwriting thing around Guy and any night they were off the road you could walk into J.J. market in Nashville and Waylon would be in there playing pinball. I met him a couple times, I don’t think he remembered me, paid much attention to me, until years later – like 12 or 13 years later when I started making records. From that point on he was pretty supportive of everything I did. We were on MCA at the same time, and he recorded a song of mine called “The Devil’s Right Hand”, twice actually, once on his own and once with The Highwaymen.
CF: As you said, you’re a Texan, but you’ve been a New Yorker for over a decade and before that you were in Nashville. What was it that brought you back to Texas, that drew you to making the album there?
SE: It was a couple of things. There’s a studio in Austin called Arlyn and it belongs to Lisa Fletcher and Freddie Fletcher, Freddie is Willie Nelson’s nephew, and he and my bass player, Kelly Looney, were in Billy Joe Shaver’s first band together when they were teenagers.
I have some pretty deep connections to Austin. They wanted us to record there for a long time, it kind of in some ways made sense for us to make this record there, plus my grand kids are there. I’ve got two grand kids, and my middle son Ian lives in Austin. So that was the deciding factor. I get to spend more time with my grandkids, then I kind of ever had, when I was making this record.
CF: I understand you moved to Nashville right after Red Headed Stranger came out. You’ve worked with Willie Nelson before and here you team up with him on the outlaw opener. What has your relationship with Willie, clearly it runs deep, and how has he influenced you?
SE: I was around him a lot before I got to make records. I don’t know if he ever paid any attention to me. I met him a few times. After I started making records, I almost immediately started getting invited to play Farm Aid. I did the first ten Farm Aids.
Since then the schedule hasn’t worked out, I’ve done a couple since then sporadically, but I was Farm Aid regular for a long time. And the very first dig publically after I got out of jail was Farm Aid in ‘95 and I played it the next year too. So I went back to playing them every year for a while, then something happened. I got so busy. I tour so much now, usually by the time they announce Farm Aid, my September, whenever Farm Aid is, is already locked down. They call, they call every year, but I just can’t. They announce it relatively late considering when they put the show on because it revolves around four pretty big act schedules. It’s like Willie, Neil, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews, that’s four schedules they have to attend to reconcile.
CF: This album is very much a ‘back to your roots’ kind of affair. Why now do you feel it’s important to dig into your past to create something new?
SE: I just felt it was the way to go. I do see it as a connection to my past, but I also see it as the future, as the way forward for me and this band. I think everything I’ve done up to this point… I’m really proud of the songs on this record, I think they are really good songs, and I just want to write some more songs for it. So the immediate future of the musical part of what I do, the record and touring part of what I do is probably going to be this band and stuff that is just as country as this for awhile.
CF: Can you speak a little on the track you collaborated with Miranda Lambert with…
SE: …I made the decision a little while ago to go to Nashville and start writing with people from time to time. A lot of those were with Guy Clark, the last few years of his life, he started co-writing, and I always resisted it. I didn’t do very much of it. I did with Shawn Colvin for our record, but that was a little different. And maybe that made this a little easier decision, but I made the point to write with several people and one of ‘em was Miranda and we wrote that songs and it was just perfect for this record.
Her record was already in the can by the time we managed to schedule a writing session, so we knew we were kind of writing for my record. We wrote “This Is How It Ends” and it was written for us to sing together and we did. That’s live, she came to Austin and we tracked it with the band, both of us singing live. It was a lot of fun. All of the vocals on this record are live except Willie’s. Willie’s verse on “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw” I had to go to Maui for and get his voice because he was already gone to Maui because he always is by the first week of December when we started this record.
CF: In the past you’ve been incredibly open about your personal trials and tribulations, you’re an artist that’s known for performing the alchemy that turns all suffering into art. Does the process of writing of music and lyrics perform a higher function than simply ‘getting stuff of your chest’?
SE: Yeah, I’m pretty adamant about the idea you don’t have to suffer for art, it’s just important that if you are suffering it’s in there. Punishing yourself in order to make art, that’s missing the point. You have to be open, and the more open you are, the more of yourself you are willing to give up, the more you are likely to find that part of you that other people identify with because that’s all they care about. They don’t give a f*** that I’m riding around on a bus that costs more than their house. What they care about is I miss my kids when I do. Because they miss their kids when they are away from their kids too.
Johnny Cash came up to me in 1986 or 7 and then said, “I love that song “Little Rock ‘N’ Roller” of yours,” it was a huge compliment, but then a truck driver came up to me about three weeks later and told me he loved that song, and that’s when the light kind of went on that it was kind of the same experience for Johnny Cash and the truck driver. They both miss their kids when they are gone, and so do I. That’s what the job is to me, it’s empathy.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
SE: I had someone come up to me once and say, “I used to support the death penalty, and I did because I just grew up supporting it, and I thought it was the right thing, and a couple of the songs you wrote you talk about it, and I changed my mind.”