Without much doubt, the highlight of Steve Earle's latest record, the enthusiastically, unashamedly country So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, is "Goodbye Michelangelo" -- his moving ode to his friend and mentor, the late Texan singer-songwriter Guy Clark who died in the Great Artist Cull of 2016.
Clark was the godfather of the "country folk/singer songwriter" tradition that developed in Texas in the 70s, out of which the younger Earle emerged. The Texas scene in the mid 70s was captured well in the Heartworn Highways doco, at which a young Steve Earle can be seen among the acolytes gathered at Clark's house.
Townes Van Zandt was that movement's guiding spirit, but Clark was its craftsman and the mentor to generations of future songwriters. Clark was more than a country singer, he was a poet and an artist, as I went on about after his death. Earle fucking means it when he sings:
Is this goodbye 'till it comes my time?
I won't have to travel blind
Cause you taught me everything I know
The track makes an interesting counter-point, as the album is dedicated to a different Texan country singer, Waylon Jennings. It is that "outlaw" hard-edged country with rock'n'roll rhythms tradition the album largely draws from.
It is true that, in the 70s, both Waylon Jennings and Guy Clark were associated with "Outlaw country", a rawer, less polished genre off the beaten track from the commercialised, polished Nashville mainstream. But they existed at opposite ends of the "Outlaw" spectrum.
Waylon was a bona fide star, with or without the endorsement of the suits in Nashville. He played big, loud, electrified songs with his up-tempo rock influenced sound.
Clark, by contrast, was the poet, playing carefully crafted tracks with a folk singer's sensibilities, all stripped down to essentials on an acoustic guitar. Not that there was no cross over -- Jennings joined Clark to sing harmony on Clark's 1976 song "Last Gun Fighter's Ballad". The Highwaymen, the country supergroup with Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, also made Clark's signature tune, "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train", their own.
In general, So You Wanna Be An Outlaw is entertaining and enjoyable, and even touching in places as it pays homage to the style of rough-hewed country developed by the likes of Jennings and Merle Haggard, but... I am sorry to say... it is just isn't as good as Hayes Carll's critically acclaimed and award-winning album last year, Lovers and Leavers.
That comparison may not seem superficially obvious. They are very different albums -- Lovers and Leavers found Carll in a quieter, introspective mood, with deeply personal tracks compared to Earle's homage to often-loud Outlaw country.
But Earle brought this comparison on himself.
In the lead up to its release, he shot his mouth off in classic Steve Earle fashion. He slagged off Oasis and Noel Gallagher as a shit songwriter (he was in Camp Blur). He slammed much of what passes for modern country music as "hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people" (if you think that is an exaggeration, try, if you can, listening to "bro-country" darlings Florida Georgia Line) .
That is all well and good, but especially eye-catching was his comment in a high-profile Guardian interview that his last wife, fellow country singer Allison Moorer, with whom he separated in 2014, had left him for a "younger, skinnier, less talented singer-songwriter".
Now, Earle did not mention Hayes Carll by name, but he did not need to. It is no secret that, both emerging from failed marriages, Carll and Moorer have embarked on a relation both personal and professional (often at the same time, as the many clips of them performing heartbeakingly beautiful ballads together testifies).
Really, all any of us can hope for in this life is to find someone who'll look at us the way Allison Moorer looks at Hayes Carll while they sing a duet.
Of course, Steve Earle's credit as a songwriter goes well beyond his latest album. It is not even that he has written such classics as "Guitar Town" or "Copperhead Road" (as good a song in its genre as anyone can ever hope to write). It is also that his career, while uneven, has been constantly bold and boundary pushing.
For instance, "John Walker Blues" is the most radically humanist song I've ever heard. Released in 2002, just after 9/11, it is a song written from the perspective of a young American man, John Walker Lindh, who was fighting with the Taliban.
Earle, a left-wing socialist, has no personal sympathy for the religious fundamentalist vision that inspired Walker to fight with the Taliban, but, as hysteria took over the US, he released this song empathising with Walker, who was captured and tortured by US forces.
The song's fucking chorus is "A shadu la ilaha illa Allah. There is no God but God." Released just after 9/11. That is courage. That is using your songwriting skills to fucking do something of note. No surprise that the shit hit the fan.
I take nothing away from Earle. He has earned his stripes over a career with 16 full-length releases from the mid-80s on. His legacy is beyond dispute.
But a straight up comparison with Hayes Carll is obviously unfair simply because Earle has been around for much longer. To judge Hayes Carll, you have to look at the impact he has had within the shorter frame of his career, and it is hard to knock.
Carll is very widely respected as one of the best of the younger generation of songwriters and performers, with five quality albums under his belt and many fans built up by constant touring. Plus he has written with, and earned the respect of, many of the greats (including Guy Clark, with whom Carll wrote "Rivertown").
I'm not sure I've ever heard a bad song from Hayes Carll. His reputation is justly huge. Of all the people to pick on... well it is blindly obvious that Earle chose Hayes for very personal, and very bitter, reasons.
But when you look at the comments closer, you see something even uglier. It is not actually Hayes Carll who is the main target of Earle's attack. It is actually Allison Moorer, who he proceeds to basically slander. Hayes is just roadkill.
Earle pretty much suggests she cynically "traded him in" for a younger, skinnier, but "less talented" model. Even worse is his implication that Moorer resents being in New York, despite the fact, Earle says, it is best for their severely autistic son.
This seems a low blow to go with in a public interview. Judging someone from social media and media comments is hard, admittedly, but any brief perusal of Moorer's comments on either strongly suggest someone who deeply loves their son.
And as to their break-up, obviously no one knows exactly what happens in other people's relationships, but it ultimately doesn't matter -- life and relationships are complicated and messy and trying to slag an ex in public is a dog act, no matter your legacy in the biz.
In fact, a man with a powerful legacy in the biz slagging off a woman in the biz coz they broke up with them is really pretty screwed up.
To be honest, it casts a bit of a pall over the second track on Earle's new record, "Looking for a Woman", where Earle is "looking for a woman won't do me like you". Sure, I think the track is not meant to be taken too literally or seriously, it is just a solid mid-tempo "dealing with heartbreak" song, but country music has a less-than-glorious tradition of men blaming women for relationship shit (which Kitty Wells famously responded to in her "answer song" to Hank Thompson way back in the early 50s). I find it hard not to think of Earle's unfair public comments towards Moorer when I hear him sing that song.
Moorer, for her part, dealt with the collapse of her relationship with Earle on her 2015 album Down To Believing. The title track is a heartfelt, deeply moving take on the end of intense relationships -- as beautiful, thoughtful, and sorrowful a song on how relationships end as I have ever heard. You can hear it here -- but a spoiler, it doesn't say "Steve was alright, but then I met this younger, thinner singer-songwriter and sure he's not as talented but he is hotter". Not exactly.
Some might even say Moorer's track is all class... in stark contrast to Earle's comments.
Neither Moorer or Carll have publicly commented on Earle's comments... at least not explicitly.
However, in recent days, social media and the music press has been alight with reports that at Willie Nelson's annual July 4 festival, at which both Hayes Carll and Steve Earle performed (on different stages at different times), Carll used his performance to debut a new song, which apparently included the key line: "I think she left you because you wouldn't shut your mouth."
Not very hard to interpret, that one.
I am grateful for Earle's moving ode to Guy Clark. Steve Earle is the man to write such a song and I am glad he has.
But I also see no reason to forgive his slagging off of Hayes Carll, not only because I am a Hayes Carll obsessive but because it is cover for him slagging of Allison Moorer for the simple reason they are no longer together.
And while I get the bitterness, for a proudly progressive man to use his public media profile to do this, frankly it fucking sucks.
|Your favourite bucket hat-wearing blogger with Hayes Carll when he played Sydney last year.|