Music interview: Steve Earle on bringing the spirit of “outlaw country” to Perth’s Southern Fried Festival

Steve Earle
Steve Earle
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Steve Earle is talking about how he learned to love his Telecaster. His current album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, is both an acknowledgement of musical roots and a tribute to those who inspired and encouraged him along the way. He recorded it, he tells me, using a 1955 Fender Telecaster: its big, gutsy twang opens the title track, with one of his heroes, Willie Nelson, sharing vocals.

“It’s a very unforgiving guitar,” the singer-songwriter says of the Telecaster, recalling that when he made his debut album, Guitar Town, more than 30 years ago, “I’d played around with electric guitar, then kind of put it down and it became definitely a second instrument. I’m a lot better guitarist now than when I made Guitar Town, so this is a country record but pretty electric. I’ve got this ’55 Tele that I’ve had for years and didn’t play very much, but it’s now the only guitar I use in the studio.”

If the album is anything to go by, it’s now having the time of its life. Earle doesn’t tour with it but he’ll be wielding another Telecaster when he and his band, The Dukes, play Perth’s annual festival of Americana, Southern Fried, later this month. They share the bill with such other US roots stars as Rodney Crowell, Iris DeMent, Graham Nash, Darrell Scott and Gretchen Peters.

Texas-raised, shaped in Tennessee and now based in New York, the country-rock troubadour is steeped in American roots music. His previous album, Terraplane, channelled the kind of blues he heard from such legends as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins and BB King when he was young. So You Wannabe, however, references the “outlaw country” movement that helped form his music. He’d known Willie Nelson since he was a teenager and the album is strongly informed by the late Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes – an album Earle regards as “the Exile on Main Street of country music”.

Jennings, who died in 2002, was something of a mentor to the young Earle: “He wore a bandana on his wrist for me every show he played while I was in jail [for offences related to Earle’s former heroin addiction].”

The album’s final track, Goodbye Michelangelo, is a gruffly poignant tribute to the Texan country legend Guy Clark who died two years ago (and whose ashes, Earle tells me, are currently awaiting interment in a bronze sculpture by the Texan singer-songwriter and sculptor Terry Allen).

Earle, speaking from a festival on the banks of Lake Como in Italy, is looking forward to revisiting Scotland, this time with “the best band I’ve ever had”. The last time I heard him was in 2014, when he played a solo, outdoor gig at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove. After the mandatory epic of Copperhead Road, he encored with a heartfelt song calling for peace in the Middle East, before heading off to Israel, where he and the Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza recorded an album with an Israeli-Palestinian group, “because I don’t believe in hopeless cases or lost causes”.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the orange-coiffed elephant in the room. “A lot of people wondered why [So You Wannabe] wasn’t political,” says Earle, who frequently pulls no punches in his lyrics, “and that was basically because when I was making it I didn’t know all this was going to f****n’ happen.” he adds, with the incredulous tones of a Bernie Sanders man who watched the unthinkable happen.

So he may be making an album of Guy Clark songs that should be out by the end of the year, “but I’ve also started writing a record that will be just as country as the last one but way more political. I want it to come out late 2019 or early 2020, just before the next presidential elections.”

Doubtless the message will come over with a suitably outraged holler and that uncompromising Telecaster twang.

Southern Fried runs from 26-29 July,