If Steve Earle had never done another album after "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road," he'd still have cemented his place in the musical firmament for skillfully creating a ragged and beautiful tapestry from the stray threads of rootsy rock and authentic country. And that may well be why his catalog over the past three decades has been so compelling and satisfying; he has consistently proven that he has nothing to prove.
"So You Wannabe an Outlaw" is the latest of Earle's triumphs to point up the depth of his musical passions and knowledge and the resultant brilliance of his songwriting. There are potent flashes of the '70s movement referenced in the album's title as Earle channels Waylon Jennings in his own inimitable fashion with his own message to impart - from the deluxe edition's loping "Ain't No God in Mexico;" "If I had not seen the sunshine, I would not cuss the rain/If my feet would fit a railroad track, I guess I would have been a train." And Earle's mission statement is solidified on the title track where Earle and Willie Nelson present a cold water cautionary tale aimed at anyone yearning for the romance of the road life.
Of course, Earle's albums seldom focus on a single subject. "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" follows that accommodation as he continues to explore his anguish over the end of his eight-year marriage to Allison Moorer, particularly on the bittersweet sway of "You Broke My Heart" and the bracing "This is How it Ends," a potent duet with Miranda Lambert, who works out her own demons in the process. On the howling blues stomp of "Fixin' to Die" and the blustery "If Mama Coulda Seen Me," Earle examines the lifestyle he abandoned and the hellbound trail it was charting, while the roughly gentle "News from Colorado" reminds us that sometimes home is better left in the rearview mirror. And Earle is at his gravelly peak on "Goodbye Michaelangelo," a heartrending eulogy to fellow fringe dwelling singer/songwriter Guy Clark. No one wishes Steve Earle any ill will, to be sure, but "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" definitely shows that he's at his best when he's at his worst.