Steve Earle Talks Nashville in the ’70s and So You Wanna Be an Outlaw

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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 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.”

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