“So You Wanna Be An Outlaw?,” the title track on Earle's new album sung with Willie Nelson, posits that the romantic view today’s millennials have of the Outlaw movement might have missed the point. Rebellion has a cost. Not since Waylon Jennings rebuked the marketeers with 1978’s “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” has there been such a direct hit on poseurs who think a lousy attitude, a black T-shirt and an extended middle fingers makes one a badass.
Beyond the pose, though, there’s the truth of what the Outlaw movement was built on, and that’s not lost on Earle. Settling back into a sofa in a rehearsal studio by the river, the Grammy winner shakes his head. In that raw voice, he begins, “It was about a commitment to art! The song was kind of a joke, but kind of not, because even then Waylon saw what was happening.
“The (original) idea is it was about artistic freedom. So this is about rehabilitating the term Outlaw, because even my own radio network (SiriusXM, where Earle has the Hardcore Troubadour Show) helps perpetuate the other idea.”
A walking encyclopedia in boots, Earle is a witness who has lived through most of it. A kid kicking around Texas, he was an acolyte of Townes Van Zandt. He was at Nelson’s first Dripping Springs Picnic, and he remembers Doug Sahm, who lived down the block, turning Atlantic Records’ legendary producer Jerry Wexler onto Willie, who made Phases & Stages and Shotgun Willie for them.
“I had a bad case of Jerry Jeff idol worship,” Earle confesses. But it was spending time chasing around Texas that forged the terse lines and deep romanticism for which he’s known. Kris Kristofferson had set Nashville on fire with his post-Dylan takes on country music — and everyone was looking at Music City with new eyes.
The lanky kid left his first wife back home and came to check Nashville out. Eventually living in John Lomax’s home, he decided to make his way here. Meeting Guy Clark at Bishops Pub, Earle spent some time playing bass in his band. He also landed a publishing deal with Combine Music and began scrabbling around Music Row, trying to find his place in the crowd.
Laughing, he recalls a place that was so small town and unaware, “The (sightseeing) buses pulled up outside Combine Music and the guide (would be) on there, telling the tourists ‘that’s where Kris had been signed to his publishing deal.’ We’d be sitting in the lobby, watching this. One day, we were sitting there watching, and there was Paul and Linda McCartney, sitting on a bench outside the studio they were in. But those tourists never saw or realized, and we were all laughing.”
That’s the kind of witness Earle is. To the original Outlaw movement, coined by journalist Hazel Smith, for a Jennings/Jessi Colter/Willie Nelson/Tompall Glaser compilation. To the credibility scare that hit Nashville in the late ‘80s, which saw Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett coexisting with more Adult Contemporary. To the Americana beginnings excavated by Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, Tammy Rodgers, Michael Henderson and a handful of folkies. And yes, from afar, to today’s BroCountry.
He knows that not every “wanna-be” icon who invokes his name has a clue about any of the above. Though an activist by nature, Earle’s aware Outlaw’s true intention may be beyond the hoi polloi of post-Music Row country.
“Who’s gonna get it?” he asks, half-ironic, half-eye-rolling. “Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I don’t care. Country music’s best music is being written by women. The best artists are women – and they can’t get on the radio. Miranda (Lambert) and Brandy Clark, a bunch of them. Guy (Clark) stayed, and he wrote with a lot of the younger artists, which is how I know them.
“What the guys are doing is really just hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people,” he continues. “I’m not judging, but listen. … A lot of these ‘artists’ have their names on songs they didn’t write. They sit in rooms, and take half the songs, like they had something to do with it.”
Anything but bitter, the turpentine-country he layers — the Texas dance hall waltz “You Broke My Heart;” the twin-fiddle romp “When You’re Rockin’ In LA;” or the Western lope of “Sunset Highway” — tugs at the memory of what his roots are. If Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton are working potent alternatives to mainstream, Earle remembers the looseness and groove that marked much of the best country he raised himself up on.
At 62, he is now an elder statesman. Yet, working with a core band that includes the Mastersons, the music is as vital and alive as it’s ever been. To kick off Outlaw, Earle culminates the Dukes’ rehearsals with a live broadcast from their rehearsal space on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station.
The band plays hard. After years on the road, they can anticipate each other’s moves. Pulling “The Week of Living Dangerously,” from 1986’s Exit Zero, out of mothballs, there’s a sense of reckless abandon as Earle acknowledges, “Not everybody up here’s played this…”
The wages of the road allow for this. The band falls in. The invited audience of 30 or so — including New York Times bestseller Alice Randall, producers Ray Kennedy and Mike McCarthy and his mother — howls when it’s over. Road warriors fear not the unexpected. For Earle, who’s lived in New York City since the turn of the century, the road is as much his home as anywhere.
“Committing to art as I have is a commitment most people wouldn’t,” he begins. “Most people wouldn’t pay the price I have. You don’t do these things without it, but you know, you feel guilty and you are guilty of always being gone.”
Earle has three children, two of whom he missed growing up. He’s been married seven times — twice to the same woman — and had a few other longtime relationships. When he speaks of the cost, he knows. With his eldest son Justin now making his own way as an Americana star, there’s a new focus on the price.
“Justin’s getting ready to be a dad, and we’ve been talking about it a lot,” he says. “Suddenly a lot of what’s happened between us, he can see from a different perspective.
“I’ve never been the running kind. I’m pretty domesticated: I love kids and I’ve been sober 22 years, so I don’t go looking for trouble. But you know, you also start to recognize the life and what it takes (out of you). … I’m not lonely ‘til I am. That’s the thing about New York: I have to talk to people, just as the course of my day. Even the homeless guy who lives in the doorway two doors down; I know his name, he’s part of my life.”
At a point in the live broadcast, Earle is standing in the fade of “Jerusalem,” a contemplative midtempo about peace in the Middle East. Recorded by David Broza, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, it’s become a modern plea for sanity.
“I don’t believe in anything being a hopeless case,” he says seriously. “Or a lost cause, ‘cause I can’t afford to. I’d seen Belfast in the ‘80s with the car bombs and barricades outside the hotel. Myself, I am a recovering addict and I can’t afford to believe these sorts of things can’t be struck down. You have to. David and Jackson and Joan Baez all sing it because we believe in hopeless causes — and what can happen — til it comes true or we die, whichever comes first.”
The effect is stunning. After the churning rock and country, the songs scraping marrow from a posture that stands up to power-politics and the inertia of getting by, the room is silent. Hopeless causes. What more could Earle invoke? Given his history, he’s lived it. Everyone knows.
Not that he’s gone soft, or dignified. With a solo bouzouki, then a bass mandolin and padded mallets, a Caribbean rhythm fills the room as Earle talks about the mongrel soup of humanity that is Manhattan. Scowl on his face, he leans into the mic and announces, “This is for d***head…” as a way of introducing “City of Immigrants.” It’s a razor slice at the President, and it’s delivered as a celebration of all the cultures which truly make America the greatest country in the world.
On Outlaw, Earle again addresses the real people who make up the actual country. “The News from Colorado” reflects on the troubles families on the margin face and obscure daily, while the whirling “Firebreak Line” tells the tale of a crew captain and the men who make up the hot shot crew, flying into remote locations to fight wildfires.
Prison guards, convenience store clerks, dope growers, Washington lobbyist, Earle has seen and written about them all. Like many of his ilk, there’s a certain construct of what makes a man. After all these years, Earle isn’t flinching. Instead, he’s taking time to assess where he is, to use his remaining time for good.
“I had teachers and mentors, and I teach and I mentor,” he explains. “I always have. When I find great young artists, I run my mouth. I was up in Canada doing a TV show, along with Emmy (Lou Harris), and we heard this kid, Colter Wall. He’s named for Jessi Colter; (he’s) 21 (but) sounds 80. Emmy and I were both sitting there with our jaws in our laps.”
As for the fading of mentors, the rich finger-picked “Good-Bye Michelangelo” sends-off Clark with a fare-thee-well that suggests connection between this world and the next, more than mourning what’s lost. At this stage of living, Earle is as much about life beyond this finite world as he is chasing the highway.
“I spend a lot of my life preparing to die,” he says without a great deal of sentiment. “I follow Ram Dass. For the last 20 years, I’ve been writing about it, reading, preparing myself. I practice yoga every day. I go to the gym. I have my 12 Step programs. It’s all part of it.
“But when you strip it away, if you ask Ram Dass, he’d say, ‘You’re not supposed to do anything.’...”
The statement hangs in the air. Do nothing. Be. For a man of such momentum, such torque and acceleration, it seems almost like a cosmic joke. Earle is a fighter; he has no problem taking exception. After all the years, though, he recognizes inevitability – and his muse.
“I took (my youngest son) John Henry to his first Yankees game. He got through the whole game. To me, that’s a big deal,” he offers. “And I made a country record on purpose, based on The Low Country being more of a folkie record based on (Neil Young’s) Harvest and After the Gold Rush.”
“When I made this record in December, I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be President. Plus, it wasn’t my choice, these songs seemed to go together. So I thought maybe I needed to write some (political) songs, but they didn’t fit.”
Photos by Chad Batka.