Steve Earle has a lot to say, and when you ask him a question, you’d better be prepared to let him finish.
Through his long and still vital career, from his 1986 debut Guitar Town through this year’s So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, he’s earned the right to speak and be heard. City Pages was lucky enough to hear Earle hold forth on what it means to be an outlaw, why his new music is less political than you’d expect, and the dangers of performing at the Minnesota Zoo.
City Pages: You do a good job of fluttering between rock music and country. Do you have a preference?
Steve Earle: I’m a songwriter, and I am interested in all different kinds of songs. I don’t have any trouble being defined as a folk singer. I don’t have any trouble being defined as a country singer. I don’t have any trouble being defined as rock artist. It’s more important to other people that I am defined than it is to me. I don’t have a dog in that fight.
This record is a country record. I think all my records are country records because I talk like this, and it is a big part of who I am and what I do. I mean, what is country music? Let’s define it. That’ll waste a lot of time. You know, it’s blues-based music at its core. The influences that go into it are Scottish and Irish instead of African, but it is still the blues. I don’t know. There’s not any real difference between country and rock and roll and the blues to me. They’re all the same thing.
CP: Speaking of the new album, do you consider yourself an outlaw? It isn’t a particularly rosy picture that you paint.
SE: The song is kind of a joke, but it’s also kind of poetic. The idea was to rehabilitate the term “outlaw.” We didn’t make it up, and that’s really where I come from, that period of time. It took me 13 years to make a record after I got to Nashville. I decided not to stay in Texas, because I knew I wouldn’t get anything done there. Weather’s too good, girls too pretty, dope's too cheap. So, I went to Nashville. I got there in 1974. Waylon Jennings was there. The inmates were in charge of the asylum. It didn’t last very long, but it was a great time to get started, but the window closed before I could get a record deal.
People use the term “outlaw”—I had a journalist tell me this album was really about my behavior, and the things I was doing instead of making music. I was like, “No, it isn’t.” It’s about Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and a few others discovering rock artists had freedom they didn’t have. They wanted that kind of artistic control over their records.
Look, George Jones wasn’t going to the liquor store at 3:30 in the morning on a lawn mower. There aren’t any liquor stores open in Tennessee at 3:30 in the morning. He was going someplace else to get something else. Country singers did illegal shit. The term “outlaw” was applied to those people by the press, because they didn’t do what they were told to do.
CP: You certainly are no stranger to making social or political statements, but it seems like So You Wannabe an Outlaw is not overtly political. Was that intentional?
SE: Look, I apologize that this album isn’t more political than it is. I simply did not know that this was going to fucking happen. We were in Canada. I supported Bernie Sanders until he got out. I voted for Hillary Clinton. I went on stage [election] night thinking we were electing the first woman president of the United States, and that’s gotta be a good thing.
I came offstage to find we elected the first orangutan president. Like everyone else, I didn’t know this was going to happen. I thought about dismantling this record, adding three or four more in a hurry, but I decided it was a really good record. I was proud of all the songs. I decided to let this album be what it was supposed to be. The next record will probably be just as country as this one, and way more political.
CP: Maybe you should run for office like Kid Rock?
SE: No. I wouldn’t do anything like Kid Rock.
CP: That’s for the best.
SE: Jesus Christ, the only way we could do worse than Donald Trump is Kid Rock. What the fuck?! I don’t have any aspirations to doing anything like that, although I am proud to know three senators. Two of them are Deadheads and the other is Al Franken. We knew each through [liberal radio network] Air America. It’s pretty amazing to watch what he has done. He’s kicking ass. He’s pulling it off. He’s a real senator.
CP: You must have noticed some of your old songs are pretty current right now. I am thinking of particularly “Amerika 6.0” off of 2002’s Jerusalem. The lyrics seem, to the letter, to be talking about 2017.
SE: This has been happening for a long time. I have never believed this nation was founded on a revolution of the people. It was founded by a bunch of rich farmers who didn’t want to pay their taxes. That’s kind of who we still are. I don’t quote Condoleezza Rice very often, but she said that this country suffers from a birth defect, and that birth defect is slavery. We’re still stumbling over it. We exist largely so the second sons of landed English and Dutch families could make their fortune with the advantages of slavery after it was outlawed in Europe.
It’s a huge part of who we are, and that can’t help but hurt. And immigration is who we are, and what makes America great, if you want to talk about that shit, is the people who kept coming. “I don’t want to build a city myself, I want to pay someone to do it.” Now they live here. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. When we get into a period when leaders are trying to make us afraid of each other because somebody is immigrating here, that’s un-American. I’m sorry.
CP: On the new album, there are gorgeous musical moments (for example, “News from Colorado”) paired with heartbreaking lyrics. It’s a trick you do well.
SE: Well, it’s part of the job. The job is empathy. A critic of a movie once said the film was “emotionally manipulative.” As far as I know, that’s the fucking job to manipulate emotions. You don’t do it gratuitously. You do it to let people know they aren’t alone. I wrote a song off my first record called “Little Rock and Roller,” and one of the first conversations I had with Johnny Cash, he said that he really likes that song. Then a truck driver at a truck stop walked up to me eight or nine months later, and he told me he really liked that song, too. A light went on. Johnny Cash and that truck driver had something in common with me: that we all miss our kids when we travel. That’s what the job is.
CP: Would you consider “Fixin’ to Die” from the new record the sequel to 2002’s “The Truth”?
SE: Maybe… I wrote “The Truth” specifically for a benefit album, released before Jerusalem, for the West Memphis Three. I wrote “Fixin’ to Die” because I woke up in a foul mood, and I decided to write something dark. I’ve covered that shit a lot—people condemned to die. I find it to be an interesting exercise to write an irredeemable character. It’s pretty self-indulgent when you get right down to it, but people for some reason really respond to that song.
CP: You are playing here on July 30 at the Minnesota Zoo. Any opinions about the place?
SE: I’ve played that zoo a lot. I’ve played it solo, with John Hiatt, with Los Lobos on the bill, and with Shawn Colvin last summer. Five or six times over the years. You just have to bring insect repellent because there are mosquitos there that are so big you recognize one when it flies by a second time based on their facial structure.
CP: Could you form a Traveling Wilburys for 2017 that includes yourself?
SE: Oh shit, I don’t know. Me and Buddy Miller have talked about starting a band for years, so Buddy Miller would be in it. Me, Buddy Miller, Shawn Colvin.... Who else? Joe Henry and Tom Waits.
Steve Earle and the Dukes
Where: Weesner Family Amphitheater, Minnesota Zoo
When: 7 p.m. Sun. July 30
Tickets: $45-$57.50; more info here