Steve Earle Talks Outlaws, Guy Clark and 'Fascist' Trump

Outspoken singer-songwriter's new album 'So You Wanna Be an Outlaw' salutes music's hardcore troubadours

Steve Earle's new album, 'So You Wannabe an Outlaw,' includes special guests Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert and Johnny Bush. Credit: Rick Kern/Getty Images

Following the release of 2015's blues-drenched Terraplane, Steve Earle has returned to deliver the rambling, heavily traditional country of So You Wannabe an Outlaw, a whip-smart homage to the hardcore troubadours that influenced his sometimes reckless youth and shaped the music – and the image – that first brought him to prominence in Nashville more than three decades ago. 

Featuring special guests Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert (on the sprightly but heartbreaking gem "This Is How It Ends") and "Whiskey River" writer Johnny Bush, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, released earlier this summer, is an intensely raw and often delightfully clamorous nod to the fellow outliers the young Texan gravitated toward when he arrived in Nashville in 1974. Recorded in six days at Austin's Arlyn Studios, the Telecaster-fueled collection could even be considered a perfect parallel to the outspoken Earle himself. Garrulous, yet nearly always thought-provoking, Earle sat down with Rolling Stone Country at Nashville's House of Blues studios recently, riffing on all things outlaw, including restoring the integrity and true meaning of that term as it relates to himself and his fellow artists. The 62-year-old performer, actor, author and activist also offers his assessment of the unpredictable Trump presidency, noting, "We've never had an orangutan in the White House before."

You've said So You Wanna Be an Outlaw is an unapologetic nod to Waylon Jennings' 1973 LP Honky Tonk Heroes. How so?  
Waylon played with electric guitar and there weren't that many country acts that did at that time. Johnny Cash is sort of the center of everything for me as far as country acts go because he was the connection between all the pop and rock music I was listening to and the country music I was listening to. On The Johnny Cash Show, I saw Derek and the Dominoes, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard and the Carter Family, for fuck's sake. So I learned a lot about what I know about country music that I didn't already know in that point, from back-tracking from things I saw on The Johnny Cash Show. Waylon, though, I think I saw for the first time on The Faron Young Show. There were all these syndicated country TV shows. Buck Owens was pretty cool, Faron Young had a show, the Wilburn Brothers had a show that was pretty good. I watched all those shows and they had guys with guitars on them. I wanted to hate Merle Haggard just because of "Okie From Muskogee" but I couldn't. I knew how good he was. When I saw Waylon there was something different with this guy.

What do you remember about the first time you saw Waylon?
I saw Waylon become Waylon with the slicked back hair, and I think I saw the first ever appearance that he made with the grease out of his hair at a thing called the Abbott Homecoming, in between the first Fourth of July picnic and the second. It was a pretty horrible failure. But it was Waylon, Sammi Smith, Willie, Jerry Jeff Walker. The first time I saw Jerry Jeff with the Gonzo Band was that show. Who else? Kinky Friedman. I almost hurt myself laughing. I found out later that that was the night that Sammi Smith oil-spotted [left] Jody Payne. He was in Willie Nelson's band for 35 years after that because they were married and she got pissed off at him and left him there. He ended up on Willie's bus and in Willie's band.

Willie sings with you on the title cut, which has an awful lot of words in it. Did he have any trouble with all those lyrics?
He's older and he's got some lung issues. I've got lung issues, too, so I understood it. It actually had more syllables in it the way that I wrote it than what he sang, but not that much. He stuck with it, as a writer he was respecting it. There was one point where I said, "You know, you can just do that the way you want to." He said, "No, this is a good song and that's the way that you wrote it, that's the way were going to do it." We did his vocal in Maui. I've taken to going to Maui at Christmas. This will be the third year coming up. [His son] John Henry and I are going to go Christmas Day again. [Spiritual teacher] Ram Dass and Willie Nelson live about 14 miles apart and Kris Kristofferson has a place over in Hana. They're usually there at Christmas time. Somebody said to me one time, "Oh, man, why don't you go to the big island, Maui is so Seventies." Ram Dass, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson – I think I'm OK with that. Every dog has a bandana around its neck and a Frisbee in its mouth. That's my kind of island.

How intentional is it that the title of that song and the album includes the term "wannabe," making it all one word instead of two?
I'm fascinated with language, so I'm fascinated with made-up words. "Wannabe" has become a word, a noun, which means somebody that's a poseur. It's also a hip-hop thing to take the contractions of words. But there is a little bit of a joke involved in it, too. 

In country music now, the best stuff in this town is all being done by women, when it comes to stuff I really genuinely consider to be art. Even in that moment before she suddenly wasn't a country artist anymore, which was a natural progression for her, it was Taylor Swift when I finally started figuring out that I needed to listen to the girls. I don't listen to a lot of radio, I've been out of touch for a long time, but I was at the Grammys and I saw Taylor do "Mean," and it occurred to me, "Oh, she's really a singer-songwriter." Especially when I realized she had written it by herself. It's the idea of something that happened to her, but it's something that her audience, which is largely young girls, have had happen to them. Almost anybody adolescent can relate to getting dissed. It either happens to you or you think it's happening to you when you're going through that part of your life. I know I did. This job is empathy. Nobody cares that I've gotten a divorce or that I miss my kid or that I'm any of the other things that might happen to me. What they care about is that it has happened to them.

What's your definition of an outlaw, as it pertains to country music?
Part of the reason for doing this album was to rehabilitate the term "outlaw." Look, George Jones was not going to the liquor store at 3:30 in the morning on a lawnmower, because there weren't any liquor stores open. The first person I ever heard about freebasing cocaine in Nashville was George Jones. The deal was, drugs and alcohol had nothing to do with the idea of outlaw. There were people that were doing what they were told to do musically who had drug and alcohol problems. Waylon happened to develop a legal issue because of it because it got kind of out of hand. I was there [when Jennings was busted for cocaine possession in August 1977]. I was at American Studios that night. I left about an hour-and-a-half before the police came through the door. I was with Guy and Susanna [Clark]. 

Doug Sahm is the person that I think is responsible for everything. Doug moved back to San Antonio from the West Coast just before Willie moved back to Texas. He lived in my neighborhood. His daughter, well, I had dropped out but she went to the high school that I would have been going to if I hadn't dropped out the year before. I knew her and that's how I met Doug. I followed her home several times hoping to get a glimpse of Doug and I met him in their driveway. That's our local rock & roll hero where I grew up. But he decides he's too weird to live in San Antonio anymore very quickly and he moves to Austin. Jerry Wexler signed him to Atlantic and he made that Doug Sahm and Band record [released in January 1973]. Meanwhile, Wexler expresses an interest in other stuff that's going on in Texas.

Including Willie Nelson…
Doug Sahm was completely responsible for that. Wexler signed Willie and they made Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. It didn't sell so he got dropped after two records and they regretted it almost immediately because his next record was Red Headed Stranger. Those records didn't sell, except for in Texas. The two years before I moved to Nashville, everybody I knew had Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie. All the local bands played those songs. I played them. Waylon made Honky Tonk Heroes in '72 when Shotgun Willie was made and very much influenced by it. But Willie had left RCA and Waylon hadn't left RCA yet and they didn't want to release it. He had to really fight to get it put out.

Johnny Bush, who sings on the album with you on "Walkin' in L.A.," is a Texas music legend, but other than his writing "Whiskey River," many people outside the state don't know much about his incredible life story, or that he was in Ray Price's band with Willie.
He was also in Willie's very first band, the Record Men. I've known him since I was about 19 years old. When I was writing this record I wanted a Ray Price shuffle. Bush kind of perfected that. Price went to all that orchestrated stuff and Bush was probably one of the guys who was going to fill that gap, but he lost his voice just when he was getting ready to be a big deal. He wasn't playing for a long time. He finally discovered why he had lost his voice. It was a genetic condition, and it turns out there's a treatment for it. He started receiving treatment and he's singing great. One of my oldest friends, Weyman McBride, a guy I grew up with who was a year older than me, his dad had one of the big local country bands. He went from playing country to playing rock & roll. He was in my uncle's rock band for a while. He's in Johnny Bush's band nowadays.

Your first meeting with Bush could have ended up being your last, however... 
My copy of Johnny's autobiography is inscribed: "To Steve, I sure am glad I didn't pull the trigger." The reason is, right before I moved to Nashville, I moved back to San Antonio from Houston. I married a girl from Houston and went back to San Antonio, basically to get her away from her parents. I was playing sit-down gigs at this restaurant called the Roth Baron. I did a couple of happy hours solo and I did two evening gigs after the major dining hours were over. There was a guy named Joe Voorhees who was in Bush's band. Bush was like Van Morrison, everybody worked for him at least twice because he fired people all the time. After a while he'd forget that you worked for him and he'd hire you back. Voorhees played piano in Bush's band, but he was a pretty good five-string banjo player. He used to come sit in with me. 

"It was the first time anyone pointed a gun at me that close."

One night, we got really stoned and didn't need to be driving. Probably drank a little bit, too, but we smoked a bunch of really strong pot. I lived in Cibilo, which was 45 minutes away but we needed to come down a little bit. We were hungry. Voorhees goes, "Hey, Bush is in Vegas and I've got the keys to his condo." We went over there and raided Johnny Bush's icebox. I'm sitting there, just eating the way you eat when you smoked a bunch of pot, a big bowl of Rice Krispies with some bananas in it. All of a sudden, I look up at Joe and all the color had drained from his face, like a fucking cartoon or something. He goes, "John!" I turn around and there's Johnny Bush in a bathrobe with a .357 magnum pointed right at the back of my head 12 inches away.

Was that the first time you ever had a gun pointed at you?
I might've been among a group of people who had a gun pointed in their general direction one or two times before that. But it wasn't the last. It was the first time anyone pointed one at me that close, that's for sure. [Laughs

Back to the record, 'You Broke My Heart' has a real Hank Williams quality to it.
He wrote like that, yeah. It's probably the Oxfordian in me … I believe Edward de Vere wrote those [Shakespeare] plays like I think Fred Rose had a lot to do with [the language of Hank Williams' songs]. He was the guy with the training. The images came from Hank, but I think a lot of the elegance came from his co-writing. I like to write archaic country songs like that. It's mainly about language. I went through a thing where I was learning to write in iambic pentameter. I wrote a spoken-word piece called "Warrior," that was on The Revolution Starts Now. It was war, as a character, conspiring against us. I based it on the Henry V prologue, "Oh, for a muse of fire…" An actor friend of mine read that and we cut that. I went in and matched the track iamb-for-iamb because I'd never done it before. Then I went back in and cut my vocal. I've kind of learned to do that since and have become fascinated with that kind of stuff. Allen Ginsberg said, "It's meaningless to break meter until you learn to rhyme meter in the first place." I realized that some country music, older country music from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, is written in almost formal language, all these long sentences. If you look at "You Broke My Heart," it's written like that. There's some really long, really elegant sentences that you don't see much in country music.

The record closes with the beautiful "Goodbye Michelangelo." What is that one about?
Guy Clark. When Guy died we had a wake here at [photographer] Jim McGuire's studio. There were probably 60 people there. That night, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Camp, Tamara Saviano [Clark's longtime friend and biographer], Jim McGuire and I took Guy's ashes to Santa Fe to [musician and sculptor] Terry Allen. Don't ever mouth off to Terry Allen about how you want to be disposed of, because at some point Guy said – and I wasn't there, I didn't witness this but enough people did that I trust – he said that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes interred in one of Terry's bronzes. He's still sitting on Terry's mantel because Terry hasn't made the bronze yet. But we took Guy's ashes out, Emmylou [Harris] flew in, [Joe] Ely, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen flew in, and we had another wake there. I got home a couple days later and I wrote "Goodbye Michelangelo."

You keep close tabs on all the political news, so where do you think we're headed with this president?
I don't see him finishing the term. I don't see how he does it. Although it's hard to predict what this guy's gonna do. We've never had an orangutan in the White House before. There's a lot of "What does this button do?" going on. It's scary. He really is a fascist. Whether he intended to be or not, he's a real live fascist. That's what's going on. What's happening – and this is what lefties have to keep in mind – [Republicans] are OK with him being there. While we're paying attention to all the stupid shit he's doing, they're methodically seeing to their agenda and they're getting a lot of shit done under the radar. They're hoping for one more Supreme Court justice and Roe v. Wade is done. They don't really care about Roe v. Wade, they care about getting elected. There are people in the House that care about it, but almost no senators. Whatever Abraham Lincoln thought it was in the past, the Republican Party is about the wealthiest people paying as few taxes as possible and letting go of as little of their wealth as possible and making an environment for them to be able to make more. We've gotten to the point where we're almost unapologetic about it.

How do you think the country got to where we find ourselves today?
If you want to know what's wrong with the United States of America, it goes way deeper than Donald Trump. We asked for that. There's a core problem and the best way to define it is: George W. Bush got into Yale. The very fact that that's possible means something's wrong with the way that we do things; the way we value talent and undervalue education. Right now, you can go "they" and point fingers all you want to, but I hope it becomes obvious to people that reality television has a cost. You have to think that Fox News and reality television is real for Donald Trump to be possible. Neither thing is true. 

Yet, try to convince his hardcore supporters of that…
Right, but the point of the matter is we have to convince them. We have to remember that we can't keep getting lefties that say we're down with the working people when we're not, really. We don't really understand and we don't really understand what they're going through. And we're not really willing to pay any more taxes ourselves.

If he's not going to make it to the end of his term, how important do you think it is for him to be out of office by the midterm elections?
I don't know, man. I think the agenda, are far as the Republicans are concerned, is going to be the same whether it's him or, uh, Race Bannon [Vice President Mike Pence's strong resemblance to that animated character on the Sixties TV series Jonny Quest has become a widely circulated Internet meme]. I think it's going to be the same one way or the other, with either one of those guys in office. Trump's scary because he has the button. My guess is that there's been something built around him to get between him and the button. There was when Nixon was in office. They gave him fake codes. He was starting to lose it and walk around talking to pictures and drinking. That's all he did the last two years he was in office. He walked around, talked to the portraits and had a glass of fucking whiskey in his hand all the time.