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Review: Steve Earle, 'So You Wannabe An Outlaw'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Steve Earle, <em>So You Wannabe an Outlaw.</em>
/ Courtesy of artist
Courtesy of artist
Steve Earle, So You Wannabe an Outlaw.

Steve Earle has always kept at least a foothold in his outlaw country roots, but he's seldom embraced them as explicitly as he does on So You Wannabe an Outlaw. Over the past couple of years, Earle's been enmeshed in specialized projects — the 2015 bluesman's holiday Terraplane Blues and 2016's covers-heavy duo album with Shawn Colvin. But a tour last year to commemorate the 30th birthday of his landmark debut album, Guitar Town, and some time spent reconnecting with key early influences like Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages helped put Earle back in an outlaw state of mind.

Back when a 19-year-old Earle abandoned his native Texas for Nashville, there wasn't a better place for a rebellious country songwriter's apprenticeship. Waylon and co. were making their raw, revolutionary mid-'70s records, and troubadours like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt (the latter the subject of a 2009 tribute album by Earle) were adding their game-changing brand of songpoetry to the mix. Assimilating all those influences, Earle became the standard-bearer for a new kind of country maverick in the second half of the '80s, when alt country didn't exist and most of the soul was being systematically sucked out of the Music City mainstream.

He's remained true to that renegade spirit ever since, and it was that same iconoclasm that drove him to various genre-hopping experiments over the years, from blues to bluegrass and beyond. But as Earle puts his early inspirations in tight focus, So You Wannabe an Outlaw is the sound of a man honing in on his wheelhouse and bashing one out of the park.

Waylon's signature growling Telecaster tone is a sonic touchstone for this album, and it's at the heart of the title track's cautionary tale, an overt homage to Jennings' "Waymore Blues" that includes an appropriately gritty guest vocal from Willie himself. The phaser effect that was a crucial component of Waylon's sound is summoned up by Earle on the roughneck stomp "Looking for a Woman," a gun-shy post-breakup narrative that's tempting to read as the aftermath of Earle's 2014 split from wife Allison Moorer.

It seems like Earle's been reading up on his firefighting history for the rugged two-stepper "The Firebreak Line." Its forest fireman narrative revolves around the heroic deeds of real-life forest ranger Ed Pulaski during the Great Idaho Fire of 1910. But there's nothing heroic about the narrator of the ferocious "Fixin' to Die." Fueled by a guitar assault far nastier and more rocking than anything Waylon ever attempted, it follows a cuckold's journey from fatal retribution to the last mile.

But while the first half of the album is heavily front-loaded with snarling hard-chargers, the subtler side of Earle's vision is given more room on the second half. Written and sung with Miranda Lambert, "This Is How It Ends" is a bittersweet look at the unwinding of a marriage, a topic that both Earle and Lambert know a bit about. "You Broke My Heart" sidles up to the same subject, but with an old-school, acoustic-based front-porch feel. "Walkin' In L.A." taps into a pre-outlaw vibe, too, with its classic Ray Price-style shuffle, sweetly sawing fiddle licks, and a vocal assist from '60s honky-tonk hero Johnny Bush (who once played in Price's band).

The album's closing cut, "Goodbye Michelangelo," simultaneously brings to mind beginnings and endings. The mournful acoustic ballad is an elegy for Guy Clark, who passed away in 2016. Besides pointing the way toward new paths in country in the '70s, Clark was one of the young Earle's most important mentors in Nashville, and the latter's sense of loss is palpable in his sorrowful but unsentimental farewell. Fortunately, Clark left behind a country music universe populated by a new breed of outlaws like Lambert, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. But for all the eminence of Clark, Van Zandt, et al, the new school owes as much to Earle as anybody. In that sense, it's doubly significant to hear him saluting the lessons he learned at the feet of the outlaw masters.

So You Wannabe an Outlaw is out June 16 on Warner Bros Records.

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Jim Allen