Even when Steve Earle dips his toe into bluegrass or indulges a few modern production flourishes, his songwriting always hews close to the sound and spirit of the outlaw country pioneered by Willie and Waylon: tough, straight-talking, occasionally sentimental, adjacent to the rebel spirit of rock n’ roll. Still, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw is Earle’s most explicit venture into the idiom since his 1986 debut, Guitar Town. Unsurprisingly, it’s also an album that finds him sounding comfortable in his own skin. There’s an appealingly casual vibe to these songs, which sound like they could’ve been banged out in the space of an afternoon, so thoroughly do they stick to Earle’s wheelhouse.
Earle pairs that level of comfort with a sound that’s tough and direct. The guitars are grungy, and though there are fiddles and steel guitars to add dimension, they never make things sound “pretty.” Instead, the album feels ragged and right, devoid of frills, all of it recorded with Earle’s regular band, the Dukes. Earle swaggers and slurs his way through it all with an attitude that feels lived-in and earned. Like his outlaw-country forbearers, he’s able to balance his grizzled persona with moments of heartfelt candor; he’s not so rough and rowdy that he can’t sing about his feelings.
The title track is self-referential, directly grappling with outlaw country’s tropes and trappings—not celebrating them so much as telling it the way it is. The song is a kind of “buyer beware”: The outlaw lifestyle affords your freedom, Earle affirms, but the cost is loneliness, rootlessness, and isolation. One of the original outlaws himself, Willie Nelson, shows up to lend the song weary authority: Like Earle, he’s lived it, and knows that the life of a traveling song-slinger isn’t always a happy one—but for some, it’s the only life there is.
Other songs on So You Wanna Be an Outlaw engage in outlaw country’s tradition of mythmaking. “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” is an uproarious confession of hard living, and “Fixin’ to Die” is even bleaker—a story that runs through infidelity and murder, its narrator content to be hell-bound so long as he gets his revenge. Some of these tall tales are directly connected to real people, like the closing track, “Goodbye Michelangelo”—an elegy for the late singer-songwriter Guy Clark, who was one of Earle’s key mentors.
Earle inhabits the outlaw spirit so fully that the songs on the album all feel like they could be based on his own life—some more clearly than others. “This Is How It Ends” chronicles the dissolution of a marriage, and it’s hard not to hear the song in light of Earle’s split from Allison Moorer; as if to confirm the tabloid readiness of the song, Earle recruits Miranda Lambert to sing it with him. The song’s more cantankerous cousin, “Lookin’ for a Woman,” finds a snarling Earle back out on the prowl.
The uptempo material here all sounds like it was written for barrooms and juke joints, but there are some grace notes in the slow songs—spare, simple ballads that could almost be sung around the campfire. The gentle, fingerpicked “The Girl on the Mountain” may be the loveliest of the bunch, a song shot through with regret. There’s nothing complicated or hifalutin about Earle’s story of love lost, but it’s winsome in its directness. He sings the song like he’s lived it, and isn’t afraid to show his scars.
That’s the appeal of an album like this: Whether or not these songs are based on true stories is beside the point. They’re persuasive, their roughness endearing, their emotions believable. You can call it a return to his roots if you like, but really, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw is just a very good Steve Earle album—one that engages his past without ever sounding stuck in a rut.