The new album from Steve Earle and his band, the Dukes, is So You Wannabe an Outlaw?, an album of grinding Telecaster country rock and softer balladry that includes a title-track duet with Willie Nelson, due out on June 16. The 62-year-old straight-shooter was in Toronto last week for an intimate house concert for the Strombo Show (which included a solo-acoustic cover of Gregg Allman's Midnight Rider, with Gordon Lightfoot in the audience) and a sit-down with The Globe and Mail.
Your albums have veered from country to rock to bluegrass to folk to blues. How did you decide on country for So You Wannabe an Outlaw?
I'm country, no matter what I do. The Guitar Town 30th anniversary tour last year had a little to do with it. Some of the songs were written during that tour. It really started, though, when T Bone Burnett asked me for a song for Nashville, the television show. I wrote If Momma Coulda Seen Me for the first season. I wrote Looking For a Woman for the second season, but it wasn't used. Both are on my new album.
What does the word "outlaw" mean to you?
I see disturbing things when people try to define what outlaw music is. Outlaw music is a term like rockabilly that I don't think was actually used at the time. Somebody in retrospect came up with that term. It wasn't about the drugs we were taking and the trouble we were getting into back then. It was about artistic freedom.
Making the records you wanted to make, right?
We were just trying to make records the way rock artists made records. Or the way we thought they did. Turns out, it was just as hard for those artists to do what they wanted to do, when it came to art being funded by corporations.
It's not like the major labels weren't putting out great records, though.
Hey, don't get me wrong. I've never been the "label screwed me" guy. I've taken the money with my eyes wide open. You know, it would be better if art was publicly funded.
Are you familiar with Canada's grant system?
Yeah. There was damage done to that in the Harper years. Hopefully, that will start to come back now. I know Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Rufus decided he wanted to write an opera. If he wasn't Canadian, he'd be screwed. There would be no way for him to fund that if he wasn't a citizen.
You've got a great Canadian fan base. Do you keep an eye on the music coming out of here?
The best singer-songwriter I've come across in years is a Canadian. His name is Colter Wall. He's from Saskatchewan, and he's incredible. His songs are stunning. He's been listening to the right stuff, and he gets it.
I haven't heard his new album yet, but I heard him described as "bad Richard Buckner."
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He's a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I'm quite fond of Buckner's music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can't write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster's darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he's one of the best writers I've ever come across. But I don't think his intentions are good. I don't think he likes us. I don't think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That's what's so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster's darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don't want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can't stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there's been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that's great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana's not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana's not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It's always the songs.
This interview has been edited and condensed.