Release Date: Jun 16, 2017
Record label: Warner Bros.
Somewhere in the swagger stagger opening chorus of the cautionary title track of Steve Earle's return to the majors, the multi-Grammy winner half bellers/half brays "You can never go home…" over and over. With a beat that shuffles and buckles, this lurching kind of honky tonk purveyed by Billy Joe Shaver and celebrated by Waylon Jennings lit the fuse of raw stripped down rock/country roadhouse music that ignited the Outlaw movement. Fiddles reel, steel guitars puddle and electric guitars resonate with the kind of bottom that'd make Beyonce envious.
The title of Steve Earle's latest album seems to suggest that younger artists trying to cultivate the "outlaw" brand might not have what it takes. A closer listen reveals that So You Wanna Be An Outlaw has a kind of double meaning: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free/ Ain't nobody wants to be alone," Earle sings on the title track, and he then gets Willie Nelson to croon with him on the song to second the notion that outlaw life isn't always what it's mythologized to be. Earle has always understood that sometimes subverting traditions is as important as upholding them to make an impact like the Waylons and Willies of the world.
Even when Steve Earle dips his toe into bluegrass or indulges a few modern production flourishes, his songwriting always hews close to the sound and spirit of the outlaw country pioneered by Willie and Waylon: tough, straight-talking, occasionally sentimental, adjacent to the rebel spirit of rock n' roll. Still, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw is Earle's most explicit venture into the idiom since his 1986 debut, Guitar Town. Unsurprisingly, it's also an album that finds him sounding comfortable in his own skin.
Steve Earle reconnects with the Texas and Nashville roots of his early career on this, his latest country-folk album. Willie Nelson delivers a reliably croaky guest vocal on the title track, a cautionary tale about the perils of living by your own rules, but he is outshone by his fellow Texan old-timer and sometime collaborator Johnny Bush, whose polished croon adds a touch of old-school class to the jaunty duet Walkin' In LA. Earle also pays fond homage to one of his Nashville musical mentors, the late Guy Clark, on the elegiac Goodbye Michelangelo.