Essential New Music: Steve Earle & The Dukes’ “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

Although Steve Earle is an ex-junkie who served time in prison (and is an inveterate political activist and rabble-rouser), when he asks if you want to be an “outlaw,” he’s not concerned with legalities. He’s talking “outlaw” as genre, as in ’70s artists Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver and, especially, Waylon Jennings, and as in Sirius Radio’s Outlaw Country Channel on which Earle hosts a weekly show.

Earle has released genre exercises (2015’s blues-based Terraplane), tributes (2009’s Townes) and themed albums (2004’s The Revolution Starts Now), and So You Wannabe An Outlaw is a little of each of those. But it sounds, basically, like a classic Steve Earle album, as rich and varied as 1996’s I Feel Alright or 2000’s Transcendental Blues or even 1986’s Guitar Town, Earle’s debut (he road-tested some of these new songs while on a 30th anniversary tour for that one).

The album ranges from raw blues (“Fixin’ To Die”) to sweet, classic country (“You Broke My Heart”), from twangy Telecaster rock (“The Firebreak Line”) to gentle acoustic shuffles (“Walkin’ In L.A.”), from bitterness (“News From Colorado”—which cops the cadence of Earle’s classic “Goodbye”) to love (“The Girl On The Mountain”). So You Wannabe An Outlaw has history on its mind: Earle drafts Nelson, Miranda Lambert and Johnny Bush for duets, and album closer “Goodbye Michelangelo” is a fond valediction to Guy Clark, one of Earle’s mentors. Backed by the current incarnation of his longtime band the Dukes (fiddler Eleanor Whitmore plays a prominent role), Earle sounds invigorated and relaxed, and these are some of his best songs in years.

Steve Klinge