In a modest paraphrasing of the title tune from his newest album, Steve Earle confesses a casual truth that one expects his own career taught him long ago. “If you wannabe an outlaw,” he sings with a drawl that seems to drag on to the next county, “you can never go home.”
Oddly enough, home is exactly where Earle winds up on “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” In a career that has seen the veteran songsmith explore politically fueled protest songs, hip-hop-flavored folk, blues, bluegrass, duet music with Shawn Colvin and more, Earle has come home to the hardest country sound he has committed to a record since the 1980s. Fittingly, it also puts him back on a major label (Warner Bros.) for the first time in two decades and re-teams him with producer Richard Bennett, the guitarist and Nashville studio pro who helped oversee (and perform on) Earle’s breakthrough 1986 album, “Guitar Town.”
“So You Wannabe an Outlaw” reaches back further to the famed Outlaw country movement that predated “Guitar Town.” It celebrates the prime hero of that era, Waylon Jennings, who, like Earle, hailed from Texas and never lost sight of his Lone Star roots as his commercial notoriety in Nashville grew. How fitting that Jennings’ running buddy and fellow Outlaw legend, Willie Nelson, turns up for some rough-hewn harmonizing with Earle on the new album’s title cut.
Lyrically, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” is as restlessly poetic and plain-speaking as any other Earle record. “News from Colorado” and “If Mama Coulda Seen Me,” however, turn the tables on traditional family yarns. The former plays out like a Springsteen song, with family becoming the source of unyielding misfortune. It is spelled out and repeated in the song’s chorus like a sullen mantra (“The news from Colorado’s never good”). The latter, though, is all Merle Haggard, as it imagines a dead mother’s grief at her son’s incarceration (“If Mama coulda seen me in these chains, she’d be fit to be tied”).
But it’s musically that Earle’s inner Outlaw really emerges, with help from a Dukes lineup that includes mainstays The Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore) and new hands (pedal-steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson). Together, they galvanize a frightening portrait of Earle’s early-1990s recklessness (“Fixin’ to Die”) and a boozy honky-tonk romp with post-Outlaw star Miranda Lambert (“This is How It Ends”).
Crowning it all, though, is “The Girl on the Mountain,” a yarn of devastating heartbreak set against a deceptively relaxed musical backdrop — proof that the rambling restlessness of the tradition revisited here never knows when to be at ease. That’s the lesson Earle leaves for us — providing you want to be an Outlaw, that is.