When it comes down to writing songs, no subject is off limits to Steve Earle. He is just as comfortable writing about prison as he is writing about love, hardship, rambling and death.
“Writing prose and other stuff, you get into areas that you don’t get into in songwriting,” Earle said over the phone during our CMT.com interview, “and some of that is tougher for me because it’s just not in my toolbox. But writing songs, I’m comfortable writing about pretty much anything you can write a song about.”
When Earle writes about jail, he writes from an authentic place. In 1996, MTV filmed an Earle concert special live from West Tennessee’s Cold Creek Correctional Facility two years after he served a short stint in the slammer for possession of narcotics and weapons.
“It was pretty scary,” Earle recalled of the show. “Any murderer who wasn’t on death row in Tennessee was at Cold Creek. That’s the kind of place it was. It was hotter than hell in there. And I hadn’t been out of jail that long and so it made me kind of nervous just going in there.”
During our conversation, Earle said Nashville shaped him into the storyteller he is today. A native of Schertz, Texas, Earle was 19 when he first moved to town in the mid-’70s. At the time, visionaries like Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and his wife Susanna were part of his community of creative friends.
“It was Paris in the ’20s,” Earle described of the Nashville he knew then. “The inmates were kind of in charge of the asylum for a minute when I got there. That window pretty quickly closed, but I just tried to keep up. There was always a group of people up with a guitar going around the room somewhere every night.
“That’s what we did. We tried to impress each other with what we had written in the days or weeks before, and a lot of that happened at Guy and Susanna’s house and Jim McGuire’s photography studio. Guy helped me get my first publishing deal, and everything I learned, I learned in Nashville from Guy and a few other people. It was a pretty good place to be for a 19-year-old wannabe songwriter.”
It was also a time when the Ryman Auditorium was sitting empty downtown. After hosting the Grand Ole Opry for almost 50 years, the venerable radio show had moved from the historic concert hall to the new Grand Ole Opry House at the former Opryland USA theme park outside of town. On Friday (July 21), Earle will headline the Ryman for the first time in his career.
“I hosted a benefit there that I had put together for a death penalty organization once,” he said, “but that was me, Jackson Browne, the Indigo Girls and Emmylou Harris. I was the host. But this is the first time I’ve headlined it on my own. So it’s kind of a big deal to me.”
Earle’s latest album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, is an intense 12-song homage to outlaw music. Listening to the lyrics is like hearing a warning of what an outlaw’s way of life can potentially lead to — heartbreak, loneliness, crime, prison, an afterlife in hell, and the only upside of it all is singing the devil out of the blues.
Two songs, “If My Mama Coulda Seen Me” and “Lookin’ for a Woman,” were commissioned by T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller for previous seasons of the TV show Nashville and served as the catalysts for Earle’s new collection.
“I wrote ’Lookin’ for a Woman’ and they didn’t use that,” he said. “In the middle of the [Shawn] Colvin and Earle tour, I had to start thinking about another record. I pulled out those two songs, and they sort of had this thread that ran through them. I thought, ’Maybe this is the beginnings of an album. Why did these two songs that I wrote almost a year apart sound so good together?'”
Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album Honky-Tonk Heroes also served as an inspiration for the project. So You Wanna Be an Outlaw’s opening title track, which features guest vocals by Willie Nelson, is Earle’s tribute to Jennings.
“There’s always a couple of records by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Willie and Waylon that I sort of have in rotation in my life,” Earle said, “and Honky-Tonk Heroes is one of the ones that pops in and out. So, I just decided maybe that’s what this will be. And I got kind of got interested in playing an electric guitar for the first time in a while. I have been kind of scared of Fender Telecasters a lot of my career as a guitar player, and I got a really good one. I just thought I’d go that route and shamelessly channel Waylon Jennings.”
Miranda Lambert co-wrote and guests on the cheating song “This Is How It Ends.” He believes women in today’s country music like Lambert would have fit right in with his community of prolific songwriter friends in the ’70s.
“She definitely would have,” Earle said of Lambert. “She can write. She would have, Kacey Musgraves would have and Chris Stapleton certainly would have. The most important [music] right now at this moment is being written by women, and Brandy Clark is kind of in the middle of it all. Susanna Clark was a person we were all trying to impress when it got right down to it. And she had hits before any of us did and continued to have hits until she died.
“There were a few people like Linda Hargrove, but it was pretty male-dominated then like Nashville can be and like it is right now at this moment. That was probably its only weakness. It might have been really cool if we had a Miranda Lambert and a Kacey Musgraves at that point.”
“Goodbye Michelangelo,” a moving acoustic tribute to Guy Clark, closes the album.
“When people ask me what I learned from Guy,” he said, “the thing that always comes to mind is probably the first thing he ever told me which was, ’Songs aren’t finished until you play them for people.’
“Because we’re all post-Bob Dylan singer-songwriters, and we didn’t come to Nashville, any of us, to write songs for other people. We didn’t come to be staff writers. It was a means to an end for my whole circle of people. That’s the difference. And so the job’s not done until you actually sing it yourself for an audience.”
Earle will tour So You Wanna Be an Outlaw through October. Shows on the schedule include stops at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California, the Neptune in Seattle and the Georgia Theatre in Athens.