In the 1970s, artists such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser gave country music a rock edge, some raw grit and a rebel attitude. People called what these artists created “outlaw music.” The results were country’s first Platinum-certified records, exciting and fresh stylistic breakthroughs and the attraction of a vast new youth audience to a genre that had previously been by and for adults. In the eighties, The Highwaymen was formed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Their final album “The Road Goes On Forever” released in 1996 began with the Steve Earle song “The Devil’s Right Hand.”
Steve Earle’s 2017 collection, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, is an homage to outlaw music. “I was out to unapologetically ‘channel’ Waylon as best as I could.” says Earle. “This record was all about me on the back pick-up of a Fender Telecaster on an entire record for the first time in my life. The singing part of it is a little different. I certainly don’t sound like Waylon Jennings.”
“I moved to Nashville in November of 1974, and right after that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger came out. I was around when Waylon was recording [the 1975 masterpiece] Dreaming My Dreams. Guitar Town (Earle’s 1986 breakthrough album) wound up being kind of my version of those types of songs,” Earle recalls.
“This new record started because T Bone Burnett called me and wanted a specific song to be written for the first season of (the TV series) Nashville. It was for the character whose brother was in prison. So I wrote ‘If Mama Coulda Seen Me,’ and they used it. Then Buddy Miller asked me to write another one for the show and I wrote ‘Lookin’ for a Woman,’ which they didn’t wind up using. I’d been listening to Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes again, and I decided to start writing in that direction.”
The new songs include the gentle, acoustic folk ballads “News From Colorado” and “The Girl on the Mountain.” “Fixin’ to Die,” on the other hand, is a dark shout from the hell of Death Row. “The Firebreak Line” returns Earle to his pile-driving, country-rock roots. “You Broke My Heart” is a sweet, simple salute to the 1950s sounds of Webb Pierce or Carl Smith. “Walkin’ in L.A.” is a twanging country shuffle. The guitar-heavy “Sunset Highway” is an instant-classic escape song. And the deeply touching “Goodbye Michelangelo” is Steve Earle’s farewell to his mentor, Guy Clark, who passed away last year. “It was written right after me and Rodney Crowell and Shawn Camp and a few other folks had taken Guy’s ashes to Terry Allen’s house in New Mexico,” Earle says. “I was only 19 when I came to Nashville. Guy and Susanna Clark finished raising me. Guy was a great cheerleader for me.”
Earle is backed on the new album by his long time band The Dukes (guitarist Chris Masterson, fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore, bassist Kelly Looney, and new members drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson). “We did the Guitar Town 30th-anniversary tour last year,” he said. “And that was perfect to write the last of the songs for this record. Because I had the band out there with me, and we could try out some stuff.”
“Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes was the template for the new album. And I’ve always considered that record to be really important. I consider his Honky Tonk Heroes the Exile on Main Street of country music.”
“I knew when I wrote ‘Walkin’ in L.A.’ that I wanted Johnny Bush to sing on it. I’ve known Johnny since 1973 when I was playing a restaurant in San Antonio. Joe Voorhees, who played piano for Bush, and I were stoned and hungry, so we went to Bush’s and raided the icebox in his kitchen. We’re sitting there, and Joe goes white and says, ‘John!’ I turned around and there was a .357 Magnum pointed at the back of my head. So that’s how I really met Johnny Bush. Years later, he signed an autograph to me that said, ‘Steve, I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger.’”
Steve Earle’s third duet partner on So You Wannabe an Outlaw is Miranda Lambert. The two co-wrote their vocal collaboration “This Is How it Ends.” “I learned from Guy Clark that co-writing might lead me to write some stuff that I wouldn’t write otherwise,” comments Earle. “The song is Miranda’s title, and some of the very best lines in it are hers.”
So You Want To Be An Outlaw is dedicated to Jennings, who died in 2002. The deluxe CD and the vinyl version of the album include Earle’s remakes of the timeless Waylon Jennings anthem “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” as well as Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” which Jennings popularized as well as Earle’s versions of “Sister’s Coming Home” and “The Local Memory,” songs that first appeared on Willie Nelson discs. Nelson is his duet partner on the new album’s title track.
Steve Earle has turned many musical corners during his illustrious career. He has been equally acclaimed as a folk troubadour, a rockabilly raver, a contemplative bluesman, a honky-tonk rounder, a snarling rocker and even a bluegrass practitioner. This definitive Americana artist has won three Grammy Awards, for 2005’s The Revolution Starts Now, 2008’s Washington Square Serenade and 2010’s Townes.
He is also the author of the 2011 short-story collection Doghouse Roses and novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Earle has been featured as an actor in two HBO series, The Wire and Treme, and on stage in The Exonerated. His film work includes roles in such respected features as The World Made Straight (2015), Leaves of Grass (2009) and Dixieland (2015). For the past decade he has hosted the weekly show Hardcore Troubadour for the Outlaw Country Channel on SiriusXM Radio and he is a longtime social and political activist whose causes have included the abolition of the death penalty and the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi State flag.
Earle has collaborated on recordings with such superb talents as Sheryl Crow, The Indigo Girls, The Pogues, Lucinda Williams Shawn Colvin, Patti Smith, Chris Hillman, The Fairfield Four and The Del McCoury Band. His songs have been used in more than fifty films and have been recorded by such legends as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, Vince Gill and Waylon Jennings (who recorded Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” twice).
Don't bother asking The Mastersons where they're from. Brooklyn, Austin, Los Angeles, Terlingua; they've called each home in just the last few years alone. If you really want to get to know this husband-and-wife duo, the better question to ask is where they're going. Perhaps more than any other band playing today, The Mastersons live on the road, perpetually in motion and always creating. Movement is their muse. On tour, in the unpredictable adventures and characters they cross, in the endless blur of skylines and rest stops and dressing rooms and hotels, that's where they find their greatest inspiration, where they hone their art, and where they crafted their brilliant new album, Transient Lullaby.
"When you travel like we do, if your antenna is up, there's always something going on around you," reflects guitarist/singer Chris Masterson. "Ideas can be found everywhere. The hardest thing to find is time."
For the last seven years, The Mastersons have kept up a supremely inexorable touring schedule, performing as both the openers for Steve Earle and as members of his band, The Dukes, in addition to playing their own relentless slate of headline shows and festivals. It was Earle, in fact, who pushed the duo to record their acclaimed debut, Birds Fly South, in the first place.
"Before we hit the road with him in 2010, Steve said, 'You'd better have a record ready because I'm going to feature you guys during the show,'" remembers fiddler/tenor guitarist/singer Eleanor Whitmore. "We didn't even have a band name at the time. We were going through all these ideas and Steve suggested, 'Why don’t you just be The Mastersons, and that was that."
Upon its release in 2012, Birds Fly South was a breakout critical hit on both sides of the pond, with Uncut awarding the album 9/10 stars and Esquire dubbing The Mastersons one of the “Bands You Need To Know Right Now”. Two years later, they followed it up with Good Luck Charm, premiered by the NY Times and praised by Mother Jones for its "big-hearted lyrics, tight song structures, and sweetly intertwined harmonies." Pop Matters ranked it "among the top Americana releases of 2014," while American Songwriter called it "a perfect soundtrack for a summer of warm nights and hot, lazy days," and the Austin Chronicle praised the band's "spunky wit and rare measure of emotional maturity." The album earned The Mastersons slots on NPR's Mountain Stage and at festivals around the world, from San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to Australia's Byron Bay Bluesfest.
With endless touring came new levels of comfort and confidence, and when it was time to record Transient Lullaby, The Mastersons knew they wanted to take a different approach than their first two releases. The band set up shop at Arlyn Studios in Austin, TX, where Chris shared production duties with longtime friend and collaborator George Reiff (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Band of Heathens). Together, they chased a sound that was subtler and more evocative, deeper and more contemplative.
"A lot of what we listen to when we have some rare time off is what we consider late night music," explains Chris, who previously played guitar with Son Volt and Jack Ingram among others. "The last record was bright and jangly and we wanted this one to be vibey and dark. A lot of the stuff is very performance-based and not at all fussed with. We've grown so much more comfortable in our skin that we really weren't trying to sound like anyone other than ourselves this time around."
"We've had a lot of time and a lot of miles to refine our sound and our style of singing," adds Eleanor, whose resume includes work with Regina Spektor and Angus & Julia Stone. "I think the depth of our songwriting has really grown, too. Part of the time we're writing on a tour bus with Steve Earle, and the bar for poetry is pretty high when you're within earshot of one of the greatest songwriters alive."
Rich with Eleanor's stirring string arrangements and Chris's masterful guitar work, the songs on Transient Lullaby more than live up to the challenge. The album opens with "Perfect," a loping duet written partially in Washington, DC, and partially in Newcastle, England, that paints a portrait of two broken lovers who still manage to find a strange optimism in this challenging world. Spare and affecting, the song puts the spotlight on the duo's intoxicating vocal harmonies and makes for an ideal entry point into an album full of characters facing down difficulty and darkness with all the grit and humility they can muster. "Fight," written in a downtown Cleveland hotel, is a wry wink at the battlefield of marriage ("I don't wanna fight with anyone else but you"), while the fingerpicked "Highway 1" twists and turns on a California road trip through an emotional breakup.
"Life's not easy," reflects Chris. "It's hard for everybody, and I don’t see it getting any easier. All you can hope for yourself is grace when walking through it, and someone to prop you up when you need a little help."
Though it's a deeply personal album, Transient Lullaby is not without its political moments. The Mastersons found themselves on tour in Lexington, KY, during the height of Kim Davis' obstinate stand against the Supreme Court's same sex marriage decision, and so they penned the infectious "You Could Be Wrong" in a dressing room before taking the stage with "Love Wins" draped across their guitars. "This Isn't How It Was Supposed To Go"—a cosmic country duet written in Cologne, Germany—has taken on new layers of political meaning in 2017, while "Don't Tell Me To Smile" is a tongue-in-cheek feminist anthem, and the gorgeous, slow-burning "Fire Escape"—which came to life in a hockey rink locker room in Alberta, Canada—suggests that the only solution to a polarized world of fear and distrust is to find strength and guidance in our loved ones.
"As we look at the world political landscape, global warming, a refugee crisis and the uncertain times we’re all living in, rather than lose hope, we look to each other," Chris says. "It’s a little brighter than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but not much."
Ultimately, the road is at the core of everything The Mastersons do. "Happy When I'm Movin'" reflects their constant need for forward momentum, both physically and emotionally, and the title track paints the pair as "pilgrims of the interstate" on an endless voyage. "No I don’t unpack my bag / Traveling from town to town," they sing in beautiful harmony. "Set ’em up and knock ’em down / Where there’s work and songs to sing / You’ll know the place where I’ll be found / If you don’t want to be alone / Then come along."
For The Mastersons, all that matters is where they're headed, and the songs they'll write when they get there.
If you ever had any doubt about where Steve Earle’s musical roots are planted, his new collection, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, makes it perfectly plain. “There’s nothing ‘retro’ about this record,” he states, “I’m just acknowledging where I’m coming from.” So You Wannabe an Outlaw is the first recording he has made in Austin, Texas. Earle has lived in New York City for the past decade but he acknowledges, “Look, I’m always gonna be a Texan, no matter what I do. And I’m always going to be somebody who learned their craft in Nashville. It’s who I am.” Look for So You Wannabe an Outlaw in stores and online June 16!