Steve Earle isn’t just your average aging thinning-hair post-mainstream relevancy Americana dude who was kind of big in the 80’s. At 62-years-old, he’s probably the youngest guy who can legitimately claim honest ties to the original country music Outlaw movement of the 70’s. As an understudy of Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, whose fresh face and stringy hair can be seen sitting around Guy Clark’s kitchen table in the iconic Heartworn Highways documentary, the Texas native wasn’t there when it all went down, but he arrived shortly thereafter, and took the spirit of shaking up Nashville and making the music you want straight to heart when he released those early records on a major labels and had legitimate Top 10 singles with songs that were essentially socially conscious Southern rock anthems.
If Steve Earle would have died in a grizzly motorcycle accident after releasing his third record Copperhead Road in 1988, we’d be petitioning to put him in the Hall of Fame right now. He would’ve been bigger than Townes Van Zant, and maybe even Keith Whitley as a guy that went out in a blaze of glory before his career was every allowed to thrive. But Earle didn’t die, and so we were allowed to see his demons surface in public view, his misdeeds play out in headlines, and frankly, watch his career and creative output take ebbs and flows that leave history’s judgement of him still inconclusive.
Steve Earle doesn’t have skeletons in the closet, they’re all right out there in public display. Yet he’s also inclined to criticize others, even though he lives in the mother of glass houses. Steve Earle inflicted more collateral damage releasing So You Wanna Be An Outlaw than an 80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, taking to task Hayes Carll, Richard Buckner, Noel Gallagher, and who knows who else yet to surface as further interviews get transcribed. You would think with all this hazing, Steve Earle’s new album would be darn near perfect, right?
But it’s kind of a mess. Yet so is Steve Earle, and that’s what a lot of his fans like, and what they come here for. The preamble to this record was how it was inspired by Waylon and the other Outlaws, but aside from a few songs, that’s not exactly what I’m hearing here. Steve Earle knows better than anyone that all of these lunkheads who fly the “W” and think that all Waylon ever did was release half-timed songs with phase guitar that hard cuss Nashville are completely off base, but that seems to be the primary direction Earle points his nose when evoking Waylon on this record.
“So You Wanna Be An Outlaw” comprises the opening song and title track, and is frankly hard to follow. Too wordy and somewhat disjointed, you’re worried when listening to Willie Nelson’s contribution that the poor man’s gonna run out of breath and tip over trying to keep up with Earle. Willie’s been having breathing issues, you know. Hopefully they didn’t start by him trying to wheeze his way through the rapid-fire pentameter of this song.
“The Firebreak Line” is only 3-minutes, but Steve Earle makes it feel like six trying to satiate himself enough to stop screaming “Cuttin’ out a fire break line!” with undaunted rapidity. The hot shot firefighters that Earle is attempting to canonize here are fighting a war that most Americans are completely unaware of, and these young men and women are making sacrifices and putting their lives at risk in the same valiant effort as the troops. They’re heroes, but this really isn’t conveyed in Earle’s song. It just makes them sound like single-minded grunts.
By the time you get to “Fixin’ To Die,” you feel like you’re listening to bad Molly Hatchet. Luckily though, there are some good tracks in between, despite some production issues. “Lookin’ For a Woman” isn’t a standout, but it’s fine, except for the fact that whomever was engineering this thing had the feeder on Earle’s vocals so high the signal ended up getting fuzzed out. I’m guessing this was on purpose. Like Waylon did it? In fact as go you through this entire record, the vocal channels and guitars are all set way too high, and crackle out regularly. The Dukes are a good backing band, but they’re not really allowed to shine here. Earle is able to recruit Miranda Lambert to sing on “This Is How It Ends,” but what’s the point of including an angelic voice if it’s corrupted by bad levels and poor production?
It feels like Steve Earle fell into the same trap we’re seeing all across roots music, which is the theory that music sounds better when you purposely make it sound like shit. Like the oldtimers did it. Which is completely untrue. The oldtimers were working with recording limitations at times, but they always did their best with the equipment provided. This is supposed to be Steve Earle’s return to the major label world and all the accoutrements and creature comforts thereof, and it might be the worst-sounding album of his entire career. And this criticism shouldn’t be taken as wanting it to sound all pretty, but you can at least keep the signals from clipping. This is recording engineering 101.
There’s nothing to be done about this, though. It’s baked into So You Wanna Be An Outlaw. And listening through whatever production issues, and whatever ill-advised songs that made it on the record, there is actually some good, and great material here.
“News From Colorado” finds the album’s first more sedated, singer-songwriter track, and the type of sentiment you expect from a Steve Earle song. The excellent moments of “Girl On The Mountain” is the exact reason you put up with Steve Earle and all of his bullshit. And maybe I’m partial to “Walkin’ in L.A.” because it’s a total Texas dance floor boot scooter with a true and well-written West Coast story at it’s heart, and features the great Johnny Bush singing duet style. And who could quibble with Earle’s goodbye letter to one of his mentors and heroes, Guy Clark, in the album’s final track, “Goodbye Michelangelo.”
Steve Earle is one of these characters who makes you accept the good with the bad. He doesn’t make it easy for you to be a fan and sometimes it’s messy, but some people love to sift through rubble in hopes of finding that shimmering gem, however unpolished. Most artists worth their salt are a little messy. They’re just usually better at hiding it than Earle. Steve doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks, like the rest of us wish we could. And that’s why when it’s bad, it’s easier to ignore it. And when it’s good, you pump your fist a little bit harder for him. He’s Americana’s anti-hero: hard to love, easy to hate, and happy to oblige his fans and enemies alike. But he’s got your attention, and sometimes that’s what matters the most.
1 1/2 Guns Up (6.5/10)
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Note: There is a deluxe edition of this album that also includes covers of “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” “Sister’s Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint,” “The Local Memory,” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.”