Steve Earle is a maverick. Anyone who has passing awareness of this Texas native, his music and career trajectory path is well aware of this fact. So it goes with “So You Wannabe An Outlaw,” his 16th solo studio outing.
Earle and his backup band, The Dukes, cut a dozen songs that return him back to his country music roots for the first time since “The Mountain,” his 1999 bluegrass-inspired collaboration with the Del McCoury Band.
Earle and The Dukes are coming to Starlight Theatre Thursday, June 21, as part of the "LSD Tour: Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam."
The seeds for the "Outlaw" outing were planted when T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, who were consecutive music directors for the musical drama, “Nashville,” reached out to Earle for a couple of songs.
The results were “If Mama Could Have Seen Me,” which was used in season one, and “Lookin’ For a Woman,” which was rejected by show producers for season two.
With a pair of songs in his pocket and a schedule that found him putting the finishing touches on 2016’s “Colvin & Earle,” his collaboration with fellow singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, Earle didn’t give those tunes too much thought.
“Halfway through the Colvin & Earle tour, I realized that I had alimony to pay and I had to work and make another record. I dusted them both off and realized that there’s a thread that runs through both of them and it dawned on me what it was,” he recalled in a recent phone interview.
“I was listening to 'Honky Tonk Heroes' again, which Waylon made in 1972 and an album that I really love,” he said. “The two songs had that vibe and they’re both based on riffs, so I decided it was going to be a pretty electric record, so I concentrated on writing for electric guitar at that point.
"I couldn’t have made this record if I hadn’t have made all the records I made between 'Guitar Town' (Earle’s 1987 debut album) and this one. I joked when somebody earlier asked me what this record was before I actually made it and I said it might have been the record I might have made if (label executive) Jimmy Bowen hadn’t pissed me off after 'Guitar Town.' It was funny, but the deal is that all the stuff that I’ve done, I don’t have a single record that I’m not proud of or any musical wave that I’ve ever made that I regret. All my regrets have to do with my personal life and not my career.”
With the wounds from his 2014 divorce from fellow singer-songwriter and seventh wife Allison Moorer still fresh, Earle used some of this pain for fodder in this collection of songs infused by a sense of love, loss and recovery.
“This Is How It Ends” is a mid-tempo duet with Miranda Lambert (who had her own breakup with Blake Shelton in 2015) that offers some degree of hope amid its self-explanatory title. Meanwhile, “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” (which guests fellow rebel Willie Nelson) and the Texas two-step-flavored “Walkin’ In LA” respectively grapple with not letting society define you and getting through a rough patch.
Fueled by an array of established artists including Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, the mid-1970s outlaw country movement was a reaction against the homogenized and slickly produced material getting churned out by Music Row. Earle experienced that movement and then a dozen years later, was part of another resurrection against the country music mainstream alongside such fellow rebels Dwight Yoakam, k.d. Lang and Randy Travis.
“I was really kind of the kid around the outlaw thing but the door just closed before I got a record deal. It’s funny — I think it was [critic Robert] Christgau that decided me, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam were the same thing,” Earle explained. “Somebody said Christgau liked this record and that’s funny because he hasn’t liked a record of mine since 'Guitar Town.' I don’t read reviews anymore. It’s just a recovery thing and it’s not that healthy.”
Currently continuing a busy 2018 tour schedule, Earle is actively inviting opportunities to work in musical theater.
"To tell you the truth, for my own output, what I’m interested in are old-fashioned musicals, where the play holds up and each and every one of the songs holds up on their own, when you take them out of their environment,” Earle said. “It’s starting to happen again. 'Dear Evan Hansen' is really good and that’s pretty inspiring. I loved 'Hamilton,' which I saw three times, (it’s) everything that it’s cracked up to be. But it’s still an opera and not a book musical.
"I’m just fascinated with book musicals because it’s an American art form. We kind of invented it.”
LSD Tour: Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam. 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21. Starlight Theatre. $33-$125. www.kcstarlight.com