ASHLAND – Songwriter Steve Earle has made his mark on the roots music scene since the 1980s. A multi-Grammy Award winner, Earle has found many outlets for his original music, recording albums in genres that range from rock to folk to bluegrass. His current album, “So You Wannabe An Outlaw,” recorded with his band The Dukes, finds Earle firmly planted back in the outlaw country category.
The recording of the album was sparked by a need for new songs by producers T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller for the cable TV show “Nashville.” That need led to the life-in-prison song “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” and another song called “Lookin’ For A Woman.” Earle kept on writing songs, following the overall theme of remembering the great outlaw country artist Waylon Jennings.
Although young at the time, Earle was there at the creation of the outlaw country genre in the 1970s in Texas and Nashville. He ran with other songwriters and performers in those days such as Townes van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and others.
On “So You Wannabe An Outlaw,” Earle sings with special guest Willie Nelson on the title track, with Texas Country Music Hall of Famer Johnny Bush on the song “Walkin’ in LA,” and with country star Miranda Lambert on “This Is How It Ends.” The album ranges from sweet ballads to clangy outlaw country to the rock ‘n’ roll crunch of “Fixin’ to Die.”
The album also features a wonderful tribute by Earle to Guy Clark, a mentor of Earle’s, called “Goodbye Michelangelo,” written about the death of the acclaimed songwriter and performer in May 2016.
Steve Earle and The Dukes bring these songs and more to Ashland’s Paramount Arts Center, 1300 Winchester Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10. The Mastersons open. Tickets range from $38 to $58. Visit www.paramountartscenter.com or call 606-324-3175.
Earle said he has seen the good and bad sides of the music business and life. He has seen his songs recorded by famous artists like Johnny Cash, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris, and he has stared at a jail cell wall. He has held a Grammy Award in his hand and has taken flak for his outspoken political views. Still, he has survived by pushing forward and chronicling it all with his music.
As Earle talks with The Herald-Dispatch from a hotel room in Arlington, Virginia, he speaks about the title cut of the album. The lyrics are a cautionary tale about thinking it is hip to be an outlaw and live that kind of life, saying, “So you wanna be an outlaw, better take it from me, Living on the highway, ain’t everything it’s suppose to be, Everybody reckons that they wanna be free, Ain’t nobody wants to be alone.”
“I’m careful about those kinds of songs, about not writing them too literally because people don’t want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself while riding around in a bus that costs more than their house,” Earle said. “But there is this thing about the costs of living like that, and that is part of what this song is about. The point of it is, it’s something that not everybody can do. It is not about being tough. It is not about being cool. It’s about what you are wired for and what you’re not. Some people can do it and some people can’t, and for the people that can’t do it, that lifestyle gets toxic pretty quick.”
Earle’s thought process then reminds him of a time when he was living the outlaw life behind bars.
“This will sound weird and overly dramatic, but that is kind of my job. When I was in jail, there was a guy in there, thank God, that I knew from the street,” Earle said. “He had been locked up a lot, and he kind of saved my butt. I was going off about something with somebody one day, and he sort of cooled the situation out, because I had been into it with the guards and a couple of inmates and it was constant drama.
“He said, ‘Man, you know what you need to do? You need to learn how to jail. We’re not living in here. You’re trying to live. We’re not living in here, we’re just jailing. You need to learn how to jail.’ So, every environment has things that you have to do to adapt to it. Often, it is about what you don’t do as much as what you do,” he said.
It has been a long time since Earle has played in the Tri-State, and he is happy to be bringing his full band The Dukes.
“Now, I have organically arrived at what might be the best country rock band in America right now, and I am really interested in this band,” Earle said. “This band is holding my interest really well. I finally overcame my fear of Fender Telecasters. The next album is going to be just as country and electric as this one, but way more political. I had already written all of these songs for the ‘Outlaw’ album, and no one knew that Trump would be elected. These songs were all written, and we were scheduled to record it last December. I thought about scuttling this new album and writing all political stuff, but I decided to let this album be what I conceived it to be, and with the next one; Katy, bar the door.”