Steve Earle talks guitars, Nashville and his audience

Nashville is a town that likes folks who call themselves outlaws, but it’s a different story if you’re an actual rebel. 

Steve Earle knows more than a bit about this. He’s a gifted singer and songwriter who became a country hit maker in 1986 with the release of his debut album, Guitar Town. However, his insistence on doing things his own way and his habit of butting heads with record company executives made him fall out of favor in Music City, even before a devastating drug habit helped land him in jail in 1994. 

Now clean and sober for 22 years, Earle has produced an eclectic body of work that jumps from folk to rock to bluegrass and blues, and three Grammy awards sit on his mantel attesting to his talent. He also has distinguished himself as an actor (a regular on The Wire and Treme), an author (he’s published a novel and a collection of short stories, and is working on a memoir) and a political activist. 

But as Earle says in his soft but pronounced Texas twang, “Everything I do ends up being a little country, because I talk like this.” And Earle has dug deep into his country roots with the new album So You Wannabe An Outlaw, which boosts the fiddles and steel guitar in the mix while featuring plenty of tunes about busted hearts and bad behavior. 

According to Earle, two factors prompted him to make a country album, and one of them was the TV series Nashville. “T-Bone Burnett (music director in the show’s first season) called me,” Earle said. “He wanted a song for Nashville. So I wrote If Mama Coulda Seen Me for that. He liked the song, they took it and they used it (on the show), then I kind of forgot about it. The second year, Buddy Miller became the music director, and he asked for a song. And so I wrote Lookin’ For A Woman and they didn’t use that – Buddy liked it, but his bosses didn’t. … When I got time to start thinking about a new record again, I realized the songs had this thread that ran through them.”

Earle also had a certain guitar in mind when he blocked out plans for the album. He collects guitars made in the year of his birth, 1955, and had recently purchased a vintage Fender Telecaster. 

“The idea of building a country record around electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar was kind of exciting to me,” Earle said. “I’m a way better guitar player than I was (when I started), and I’ve been scared of Telecasters most of my life. They’re very unforgiving guitars. I just started playing electric guitars when I was 26 or 27, and my electric guitars were Gibsons with P-90s (pickups) that were mushy sounding and very forgiving. Telecasters aren’t like that. I just decided I was a better guitar player now and I might be able to pull it off. I gave it a shot, and we’re pretty happy with how it turned out.”

The album also features guest spots from two Texas country legends, Willie Nelson and Johnny Bush, as well as a duet with Miranda Lambert, who co-wrote This Is How It Ends

“I had been resistant to co-writing for a long time, except for maybe as part of a production project,” Earle said. “I just decided to make some appointments, go to Nashville, and do some writing with some people I thought could write. Miranda was one of them, and we made an appointment and we wrote that song. We had to reschedule about three times, so by the time we got together to write, her record was in the can, so we knew we were writing for my record. She came to Austin where we were recording, and we tracked it live.”

Earle’s fans that like the new album will be happy to hear that he expects the next one to be another country leaning set, though he also intends to address the current state of the nation. 

“The next record is probably going to be as country as this one, but way more political,” Earle said. “I’m gonna try to speak to an audience that the Democratic Party lost, and I’ve lost over the years. I would love to think my audience is all working class people in the middle of the country, but it’s not. My audience is an NPR audience. … The Russians didn’t elect Donald Trump. People did who were f—ing sick of being ignored. And we have to address that, and I’m gonna try to address that on my next record.”


Steve Earle & the Dukes

Kalamazoo State Theater, 404 S. Burdick St., Kalamazoo

Sept. 22, 8 p.m. $34.50-$49.50, (269) 345-6500

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