Outlaw country is as much about a rebellious attitude as punk or rock ‘n’ roll ever were. Johnny Cash had it in spades, Willie Nelson rolls it up and smokes it for breakfast and Steve Earle is the living embodiment of it. Drink, drugs, prison, more marriages than a horny Mormon…Steve Earle’s life isn’t one you’d perhaps aspire to – as he alludes to himself in the title song – but you’ll always wish you were half as cool as him.
Thankfully he makes music that lives up to and often surpasses expectations. Well into his sixties and about a billion albums into his career it’s a testament to his songwriting ability that he can still produce an album as good as this without seeming to break sweat. It still sounds fresher and is packed with more ideas and diversity than 90% of the country music that’s coming out at the moment.
Somehow managing to be both his most rock and most country sounding record of recent times the music switches from snarling blasts like Fixin’ to Die to broken-hearted laments like The Girl on the Mountain with accomplished ease. But without ever sounding complacent or forced. Earle’s real gift is how well he sells a song. Whether it’s a character study of small town problems, an autobiographical tale or an homage to a departed friend you believe every word he says absolutely. There is no Nashville gloss, the music, concise, brilliant and surprising as it is – sometimes emphasising, other times juxtaposing the lyrical content – always serves the song perfectly.
Steve Earle is country music’s Springsteen, a crafter of songs, a storyteller who uses the minutiae of life to highlight bigger issues and a heart-on-sleeve romantic. He should be revered as a legend and we should thank our lucky stars he’s still around and making albums this damn good.