A busy Steve Earle pays tribute to his outlaw mentor while studying mainstream country music.

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On July 1, Steve Earle played the first of three nights as part of the Outlaw Music Festival.

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The term “outlaw” is used pretty randomly in country music. But it’s safe to say that the lineup for these shows, which included Willie Nelson and Jason Isbell, features artists with a reputation for playing outside the cozy parameters of mainstream country. Earle himself has certainly fit the role throughout his career. Not only has his music been shaped by a personal history that has included addictions, profound tragedies, and multiple wives, but he has also maintained an uncompromising artistic vision and progressive political views that have often kept him out of the mainstream. . In fact, the title track of his 2017 album So You Wanna Be An Outlaw found him enlisting Nelson to duet on a growling anthem that shuts down romantic myths about living on the edge as an outsider. That song, like all of his songs, was never going to upset the top country charts.

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All of which makes Earle’s recent attempts to crack the conventional country radio formula seem even more peculiar, at least on the surface. It seems that much of his energy as a songwriter has lately been devoted to working with playwright Daisy Foote on a musical based on the 1983 film Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning role as a failed singer-songwriter. It turns out that courting the mainstream isn’t based on money concerns but on a desire for authenticity.

“It’s not that I want to get on country radio necessarily, although I wouldn’t mind the money,” Earle says, in a Zoom interview with Postmedia from a tour stop in Arkansas. “I’m doing it because in Tender Mercies, if you’ve seen the movie, there’s a younger band that looks up to him. We’ve brought it into the present and I want that band’s music to be absolutely contemporary to the country music you hear on country radio right now.”

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He has taken Earle, who has rarely co-written with others in the past, to songwriting sessions with some polished Music City pros, including many who are decades his junior. Still, don’t expect the singer-songwriter to add to that age-old debate about what is or isn’t “real” country music.

“I’m not the guy who’s going to say that what those guys are doing isn’t country,” says Earle. “They decide which is the country. In 1986, people said that what I was doing was not country.

True, Earle has never fit in with the conservative confines of Nashville. But he hasn’t given the impression that he cares that much either. Guitar Town, his 1986 debut, established him as a singular talent who was equally adept at country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and folk. The incredible body of work he has amassed since then has easily placed him at the top of the hill when it comes to modern music’s most respected composers. Still, even his early commercial breakthrough, 1988’s Copperhead Road, was much more successful in Canada than in his home country. But while he has been determined to blaze his own trail, he has not been without the guidance of some important mentors.

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Which brings us to his 22nd album, Jerry Jeff. It was released earlier this year and is made up of songs written by Jerry Jeff Walker, another truly blue music outlaw whose influence as a songwriter far outweighs his album sales. Walker is probably best known for writing the song Mr. Bojangles, which became a signature tune for other artists such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Sammy Davis Jr. Earle discovered Walker’s music while still in high school and eventually met. with the. in the early days of his career through Guy Clark, another mentor. Walker started out as a New York folkie, but soon became an important, if often unadvertised, part of the outlaw movement in country music. It wasn’t just his music that influenced Earle at a young age, but also his tough lifestyle as a migrant musician who often hitchhiked from one concert to another. He passed away in 2020.

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“When you write a song like Mr. Bojangles, the rest of your work can very easily be overshadowed,” says Earle, who will bring the Dukes and their Jerry Jeff tour to the Calgary Stampede for a show at the Big Four Roadhouse in July. 10. “He was afraid that people would forget what a great writer he was.”

Earle sticks to songs that were written in the mid-1970s or earlier, including underrated gems like the beautiful Little Bird and the upbeat I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me). Some of the songs come directly from Earle’s early set lists. when he was still mostly doing covers. Jerry Jeff is Earle’s fourth cover album. He launched JT in 2020 as a tribute to his son Justin Townes Earle, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Jerry Jeff is the third tribute to songwriters Steve Earle considered friends and mentors, following his 2009 album of Townes Van Zandt songs and his 2019 tribute to Guy Clark.

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For now, Earle doesn’t know when he might release another album of his own songs. He has a lot of other things to juggle. In addition to Tender Mercies, he is working on a sequel to his 2011 debut novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. He has signed a publishing contract for two books. The other was going to be a literary memoir, which he has put on hold.

“It was very much about recovery and I will finish it one day,” he says. “But because it’s primarily a recovery book, it became a different book when Justin died. I just told my editor ‘I can’t finish this now’. But the deal was for two books, the memoirs and a novel. Memories are worth more money and I’ve already spent the first half. So I said ‘either we change the delivery or I’ll give you your money back because I can’t write this right now’. He agreed to turn the delivery around, so I went back to work on the novel.”

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Given that some of Earle’s work in the past has been based on his progressive political views, it might seem like his country has provided a lot of inspiration in recent years. In 2004, he released the fiery album The Revolution Starts Now in direct response to the reign of President George W. Bush. These days, those years almost seem quaint compared to the Trump years and what followed, including the recent Roe vs. Wade by far-right elements of the Supreme Court.

“I still write more songs about girls than anything else, but it will probably get some work done,” says Earle of the political climate in his country. “I am very pragmatic about your country. I have never believed that it was the purest form of democracy in the world. I really think people have to learn to talk to each other, whether they think they’re going to agree with them beforehand or not. That is the biggest problem we have come to.

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“While we all take on our individual issues that concern us, most people give an (expletive) on an issue, the people who are actually in power have rigged the federal courts. It’s not just the Supreme Court, this has been going on since the 1980s. The powerful people of this country, every time the Republicans have been in power, they’ve been getting as many judges as they can. Now, there are 870 people, that’s how many federal judges there are, that no one elected. None of them are elected, but they are really deciding the future of this country and that’s scary.”

Steve Earle and the Dukes will play the Calgary Stampede’s Big Four Roadhouse on July 10.

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