by Julian Spivey
For his latest album So You Wannabe An Outlaw, Steve Earle set out to record an old-school outlaw country album like he had at the beginning of his career. He was inspired by the great 1973 Waylon Jennings album Honky Tonk Heroes, penned almost completely by Billy Joe Shaver.
On Saturday, July 8 at Memphis’ Minglewood Hall, Earle showed the packed room that he had achieved his mission well.
For the last decade or more Earle has proven himself to be a fantastic folk troubadour, but some of “us” have always longed for the outlaw country-rock of “Copperhead Road” or “Guitar Town” from the late ‘80s that put Earle on the map. The Steve Earle of this album and the one on the stage in Memphis on Saturday night was everything “we” wanted.
Earle opened his show with many consecutive performances from the new release including the excellent title track (which he does with Willie Nelson on the album), “Lookin’ for a Woman” (maybe one of the catchiest tunes you’ll hear this year), “The Firebreak Line,” “Walkin’ in L.A.” (which brings some nice Western swing to the album and live show) and “Sunset Highway.”
Earle then completely made my night by breaking into my favorite song of his “Guitar Town,” from his 1986 debut album of the same name. It’s quintessential heartland country-rock and really helped save the genre of country music during its era that was being dominated by the pop-influenced ‘Urban Cowboy’ movement.
Earle has never been a shy one when it comes to sharing his opinion and he’s certainly known to be a cantankerous personality and it wasn’t any different on the stage Saturday night. Though, I will say he was incredibly gracious with his fans from the stage and signing autographs for them afterward. Earle can get political and his politics don’t always mesh with some in his fan-base. He’s staunchly liberal, maybe as much as half of his fan-base is conservative. This led to somewhat of a slightly awkward feel in the room occasionally through the night when he sang the pro-immigration song “City of Immigrants,” when he performed the anti-George W. Bush tune “Little Emperor” and when he referred to President Donald Trump as “that asshole trying to build a wall.” I understand that some people don’t like for musicians to get political in song or from the stage, but if “we” have rights to our opinions than why shouldn’t “they.” I was somewhat disappointed in the reaction of about half of the audience when it came to the applause level for “City of Immigrants,” especially; for the life of me I don’t understand how anybody could be offended by such an arm-opening sentiment. After all, as the song states, “all of us are immigrants.”
While Earle really got revved up with the outlaw country toward the middle to end of his show he did manage to sneak some folkies or more traditional sounding country tunes in his set that were just as stunning and entertaining as anything else throughout the night like the country waltz-ish duet “I’m Still in Love With You,” with Eleanor Masterson, the fiddle player for his terrific backing band The Dukes and the folk-blues of “You’re the Best Lover That I’ve Ever Had” and the Irish-influenced folk of “The Galway Girl,” definitely one of my favorite performances of the night.
One of the most touching performances of the evening was Earle’s tribute to one of his songwriting heroes and mentors Guy Clark, who died last year. The track “Goodbye Michelangelo,” which appears on So You Wannbe An Outlaw, was enough to bring a tear to the eye and was preceded with a great story about how Earle, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell and others took Clark’s ashes out to New Mexico to end up in one of Allen’s sculptures.
While every performance throughout the night was stellar you could just feel the intensity of the show ramp up around the midway point when Earle brought the outlaw country-rock to the forefront and this started with fan-favorite “Copperhead Road,” which probably gets more airplay to this day on classic rock radio formats than classic country formats. The performance got people on their feet, realty for the first time all night, and even led to a bit of slight mosh-style dancing up toward the front of the stage.
The outlaw attitude would continue for the remainder of the set with great performances of “Acquainted with the Wind,” “Taneytown,” “Hard Core Troubadour” and another fan-favorite of the night in “The Week of Living Dangerously.” The hardest rocking tune of the night was “Fixin’ to Die,” about shooting down a cheating lover and being put to death for the crime, which was followed by a hard-charging rocking cover of Jimi Hendrix’s similarly themed “Hey Joe,” my favorite Hendrix track. This fantastic cover ended Earle’s set, but he wouldn’t leave the raucous crowd waiting long.
Earle returned to the Minglewood Hall stage and slowed it down a bit with the bluesy “My Old Friend the Blues,” before immediately amping it back up again with “The Devil’s Right Hand” and slowing it down once again with the show closer of “The Girl On the Mountain,” a plaintive tune of lost love that never really was, that seems like one of the more personal songs Earle has ever written and appears on the new album.
All in all, it was a badass night of music and I couldn’t be happier that Earle has gone back to the outlaw side of life.