Inquiring Minds

Steve Earle Finds He Enjoys the Outlaw Life

Willie Nelson and Miranda Lambert guest-star on Steve Earle's new album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw.
Willie Nelson and Miranda Lambert guest-star on Steve Earle's new album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw. Photo by Chad Batka/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
Steve Earle doesn’t have much time to talk, as he’s in between lunch and soundcheck in Nashville. But in the 15 minutes he has, he talks aplenty and is very engaging about his life these days.

Earle is a musician with more than a dozen albums to his name, an author of a couple of books, and an actor in a few roles, including a memorable turn in The Wire. He hasn’t played Houston in a few years for an understandable reason. His young son, John Henry, took his first steps in front of the House of Blues in Houston, so it’s not like he’s had a problem with the town. The buyer who used to bring him here stopped booking him, so that’s why it’s been so long.

Earle is promoting his latest effort, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, and he’s happy to come back here. “I love Houston,” Earle says in between bites of a quesadilla. “I consider Houston to be musically where I’m from every bit as San Antonio. I got there when I was 17.” Following the legendary singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, he found his way to Houston. “I figured out he didn’t live anywhere, but he spent more time in Houston than he did anyplace else,” Earle says.

Though he has history with the town and a house in Nashville, his primary home is in Greenwich Village in New York, and has been for 12 years. “I spend, at most, ten days in Nashville every year,” he says. He does not tire talking about the road that led him to where he is now.

He’s not one to shy away from the strengths and faults of Van Zandt; he can talk at length about the man. “I get irritated with people who tell stories about Townes as if they were there,” he says. “I know they weren’t because I was. I’m glad that more people think he’s worthy of associating [with] themselves, but I get tired of that shit.”

Van Zandt has been mythologized for his talents while people think his life struggles had to be lived in order to create such great songs. Not so. “It is necessary that your suffering be in your art if you are suffering,” Earle says. “You have to be willing to give up some of yourself. What’s important is you’re willing to give up whatever you’re feeling and you find some sort of story to tell that makes the audience feel like it’s a shared experience. They don’t care what you’ve been through. They care about what you’ve been through that they relate to that’s something similar to what they’ve been through. This job is about empathy, as far as I can tell.”

A big part of that empathy is dealing with the past and current times, especially understanding what people are going through with the Trump administration. Earle cut So You Wanna Be an Outlaw in December in Austin, so the new songs are definitely of the times. He considered adding some new songs, but decided against that. “I had written this record for a specific reason,” he says. “It’s a musical statement about where I come from. It’s based on a Waylon Jennings record called Honky Tonk Heroes, musically.”

With a backing band composed of Tennessee and North Texas residents, Earle is happy with this current edition of the Dukes. He’s already thinking about his follow-up to So You Wanna Be an Outlaw. “I think the next record is going to be just as country as this one and way more political,” Earle says. “You can pretty much count on that.”

Steve Earle & the Dukes perform Monday, July 3 at House of Blues. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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Houston Press freelance contributor Eric Grubbs spent most of his youth in Kingwood. He has written for various publications and has authored two books. He supports Manchester City and will never root for Manchester United.