Music Reviews

posted: June 19, 2017

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Steve Earle So You Wannabe An Outlaw

Warner Bros. Records, 2LP or CD
Steve Earle

Steve Earle is an esteemed musical veteran, but there was a time when the Texas troubadour was the new kid on the block. He first landed in Nashville in 1974 at the age of 19, just in time to see the outlaw movement break wide open with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson leading the way. Earle’s new So You Wannabe An Outlaw serves a salute to the artists of that era—and the beloved firebrands who shaped Earle’s own aesthetic of raw country-rock rave-ups and wounded balladry. He even dedicates the album to the late Jennings, who passed away in 2002.

Lone Star singer-songwriter Guy Clark, a roughhewn Shakespeare of the plains who died last year, remained chief among Earle’s early mentors. Earle salutes his late friend and teacher on “Goodbye Michelangelo.” The delicately picked acoustic number comes loaded with conflicted goodbyes such as “I’m bound to follow you some day/You have always shown the way.” Earle’s tobacco-and-whiskey scarred vocals emerge like well-earned personal trademarks—an appropriate trait given his elder-statesman status.

Akin to his outlaw forefathers, Earle is man enough to show his tender side. The aforementioned Clark tribute ranks among the slower material here, joining the effecting rootsy ballads “The Girl on the Mountain” and “News from Colorado.” Then there’s the raucous material. “Fixin’ to Die” finds the gritty sweet spot between metal and roots rock. Earle’s scorched-earth voice cries out from a cauldron of sound that recalls a marriage of Blue Oyster Cult and the Georgia Satellites.

Indeed, Earle has never made a bad record, and plenty of strong material informs So You Wannabe An Outlaw. He gets able backing from his longtime band the Dukes: guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddler Eleanor Whitmore (a husband-and-wife team who also have their own career as the duo the Mastersons); bassist Kelley Looney; and two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal-steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson. The group bangs out a sturdy beat and chiming electric-guitar riffs on the hard honky-tonk number “The Firebreak Line” and creates an infectious galloping rhythm for “Lookin’ for a Woman.”

Earle also entertains several duets. He teams with country star Miranda Lambert for their co-write “This Is How It Ends,” a rousing country-rocker with Tex-Mex accents. The vintage two-stepping ditty “Walkin’ In L.A.” features a guest spot from the venerable Johnny Bush, lauded country singer and songwriter of the classic “Whiskey River.” At 82, Bush shows his years with a thin vocal, but the performance feels undeniably touching.

Kudos to Earle for bringing the legend back into the studio. It’s a fitting moment on an album on which Earle pays homage to his heroes and simultaneously accepts the torch from them.

–Chrissie Dickinson