Steve Earle, country outlaw turned Renaissance man, refinds roots

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New York (AFP)

Steve Earle is a country rocker who has distinguished himself far beyond music, a Texan who long ago left the state, and an artist whose passions drive him to left-wing activism.

Yet for his first album since the shock of President Donald Trump's election, the now 62-year-old singer and guitarist has returned to Texas, and, for now, is keeping down the volume on politics.

His 16th studio album, "So You Wanna Be An Outlaw," reaches into country roots with stripped-back guitar and storytelling, while still preserving Earle's characteristic hard edge.

The album marks the first time Earle has recorded in Austin, Texas's capital and now a major music hub. He moved to Nashville -- a longtime top country music center -- at 19 and later settled in New York.

"Austin just seemed too close to home as I was from San Antonio. The girls were too pretty, the dope was too cheap, and I knew I would never get anything done there," the seven-times-married Earle told AFP with a laugh.

Earle headed to Austin in part to commune with local legend Willie Nelson, the most visible face of outlaw country -- the subgenre known for its lyrical introspection, unvarnished production and strong-willed personalities.

Nelson sings with Earle on the title track of "So You Wanna Be an Outlaw," although, in a scheduling quirk, they recorded not in Texas but in Nelson's other home base in Hawaii.

Earle dedicated the album to late Texas-born outlaw and mentor Waylon Jennings, whom Earle channels by playing an old Fender Telecaster guitar, known for its clear, steely sound.

Outlaw country "is about a moment when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had discovered that rock acts had freedom they didn't have," Earle said.

"That's why they were called outlaws. It didn't have anything to do with lifestyle."

- 'A post-Dylan songwriter' -

The most powerful pieces on the album include "News from Colorado," a morose tale written with Earle's daughter Emily about the struggles to turn the page on hardship, and "Goodbye Michelangelo," a metaphor-rich tribute to another late Texan singer, Guy Clark.

"Fixin' to Die," which references the song by blues great Bukka White that was covered by Bob Dylan, evokes a prisoner condemned for shooting a lover in a hotel.

"I'm a post-Bob Dylan songwriter. I write songs that are intended to be a form of literature," Earle said.

As for Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Earle said he was "surprised, but I think he absolutely deserved it."

Earle is spending late June running his latest camp in New York's Catskills for emerging songwriters before he starts a tour, in Texas, on Saturday.

The salt-and-pepper bearded artist won fame with his 1986 album "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road" two years later, but has increasingly branched out.

His works include a novel that delves into abortion, a play on capital punishment -- of which he is an adamant opponent -- and acting credits from Broadway to the popular television series "The Wire."

"I'm a way better songwriter than I was because of the other stuff I do. It just gives you other tools," he said.

"And as a performer, since I've been acting, I'm way better at connecting with audiences."

- Listening to Trump voters -

Initially a supporter of left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders, Earle like so many others expected Hillary Clinton to defeat Trump.

"I went on stage that night in Ottawa, Ontario, believing I was going to come off to the first female president of the United States. And I came off and it's the first orangutan president of the United States," he quipped.

Earle recorded "So You Wanna Be an Outlaw" weeks after the election and initially thought to rewrite up to half the album to reflect the political moment.

He decided to keep the album as is, considering it "something that I personally and musically wanted to say" and declaring he had the best back-up band of his career.

But he also wants more conversation. Earle fears the left is failing to make its case to its working-class target audience.

"These folks voted for Donald Trump because they felt no one was listening to them," he said. "I'm going to listen rather than just talk as I write this next album."

"I imagine the next album will be just as country as this -- and way more political."