Time has not judged Steve Earle. A man that has lived his life should really be eating mashed banana from a plastic plate while a kindly nurse measures out his medication. Instead, he’s just made one of the best albums of his career
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Rock stars think they’re God’s gift to outrage, don’t they? Swearing on TV, smoking onstage and singing about how much marry-yee-wanna they think they smoke. They’re all lightweights. The real hell raisers are those nicely dressed, church on Sunday types in the world of country music. While Keef was getting his wrist slapped for smoking naughty cigarettes, country musicians were drinking bathtubs of bourbon, taking handfuls of weapons grade amphetamines for breakfast and getting arrested almost hourly. On his 1975 noisefest “Metal Machine Music”, Lou Reed declares “My week beats your year”. Well Mr Reed, Steve Earle’s lunchbreak probably beat your year…
Steve Earle has lived. Addictions? Yep. All of ‘em. Probably simultaneously. Marriages? Yep. Seven. Extra-curricular activities? Try novelist, playwright, actor and political activist. His Wikipedia entry is NSFW. At 62, he resembles a benign biker or a redneck Gandalf. It’s a good look.
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It’s no surprise that Mr Earle has no problem choosing subject matter for his songs. “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” focuses on love and loss, two subjects he has plenty of first-hand experience of. After only a cursory listen, you’ll learn that Earle is The Real Deal. So much contemporary country music which references “outlaws” and “cowboys” is sung by latte-drinking city boys who’d run screaming if the recording studio’s air conditioner malfunctioned. Earle however, is made of stronger stuff. Tipping his cap in reverence to his kindred spirit Waylon Jennings, there’s enough heartbreak and death on this album to keep even the gloomiest Marilyn Manson fan awake at night.
Earle sounds great in 2017. Imagine the bloke who sang “Devil’s Right Hand” but at two in the morning after four glasses of Jack Daniels. That’s what he sounds like. So when he sings “’Cause I shot my baby in the Heaven on the Highway Hotel”, in “Fixin’ To Die”, you absolutely believe him. Also sounding pretty sprightly is Willie Nelson who trades lines with Mr Earle on the album’s title track. Just in case you thought channeling Waylon Jennings and duetting with Willie Nelson wasn’t country enough, “Goodbye Michelangelo” is a tender farewell to the legendary Guy Clark – “Cause you taught me everything I know, Goodbye Michelangelo” sings Earle while the Dukes rise up to meet him. It’s ragged and real and beautiful. “The Girl on the Mountain” and “You Broke My Heart” could have been recorded at any time since recorded sound was possible. The latter tune harks back to Hank Williams and beyond and may also be the most country sounding country song of all time. The deluxe version of “…Outlaw” adds an excellent version of Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” to an album already stuffed with good stuff.
“So You Wannabe An Outlaw” manages to contain enough contemporary sounding material to snag stray Garth Brooks fans and still keep the old school country audience on his side. Time has not judged Steve Earle. A man that has lived his life should really be eating mashed banana from a plastic plate while a kindly nurse measures out his medication. Instead, he’s just made one of the best albums of his career.
“So You Wannabe An Outlaw” is available now on Warner Brothers