Steve Earle Talks New Album, Why He 'Wanted to Hate Merle Haggard'

'So You Wannabe an Outlaw,' out today, is singer-songwriter's electric guitar-driven ode to 'Honky Tonk Heroes'-era Waylon Jennings

Steve Earle releases new album, 'So You Wannabe an Outlaw' today, June 16th. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

For the vast majority of Steve Earle's studio LPs, beginning with the 1986 neo-traditional classic Guitar Town, he has used other inspiring works to build a sonic template before recording. For his latest, the raucous So You Wannabe an Outlaw, out today, the Texas-born musician, novelist and actor unapologetically channels Waylon Jennings – in particular, the rebellious, monumentally influential Honky Tonk Heroes-era Waylon, who took creative control of his musical destiny with that 1973 album, largely penned by fellow renegade Billy Joe Shaver. 

Earle's Outlaw, which features appearances from Willie Nelson (on the title cut), Miranda Lambert and "Whiskey River" writer Johnny Bush, is coincidentally available one day after Jennings would have turned 80 years old, but the timeless entertainer isn't the only legend whose influence looms over the proceedings.

"Waylon Jennings played with electric guitar and there weren't that many country acts that did at that time," Earle tells Rolling Stone Country. "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."

Cash's variety show that ran 1969 to 1971 was indeed wide-ranging in terms of its guests, bringing together tried-and-true rockers with folk-influenced songwriters and country heroes. Earle got a musical education, even when it concerned a performer that he didn't fully appreciate.

"On The Johnny Cash Show, I saw Derek and the Dominos, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard and the Carter Family, for fuck's sake," he adds. "So, I learned a lot about what I know about country music that I didn't already know in that point, backtracking 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. . . 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."

Opening with the title track, the standard version of So You Wannabe an Outlaw closes with the touching "Goodbye Michelangelo," a song Earle penned for his longtime friend Guy Clark after the singer-songwriter's death in May 2016. A deluxe version of the LP includes four additional tracks, including Earle's take on Jennings' 1975 Hank Williams homage, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way."