Steve Earle has had a problematic relationship with country music throughout his career.
His roots in the Texas songwriting community and its Nashville annex run deep, but he's never had much use for the strict boundaries of style and decorum that define Music Row.
Since he returned to duty in the mid-'90s after a near-fatal bout with drugs and the law, Earle has behaved more like a singer/songwriter or contemporary folk act than a country artist.
In many respects, that's fitting given his body of work, but it has also cut him off from some of the qualities that made his early work so memorable as he pushes back on his twangier instincts.
But for whatever reason, 2017's So You Wannabe an Outlaw is the most explicitly country record Earle has made since his bluegrass set The Mountain in 1999.
Thirty-one years after Guitar Town, Earle's approach to making a country album has changed; So You Wannabe an Outlaw sounds rougher, tougher, and more spontaneous, with more than a bit of rock & roll swagger blending in with the fiddle, pedal steel, and twangy guitars.
Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground that one would expect from Earle -- troubles with women ("This Is How It Ends" and "Lookin' for a Woman"), hard times ("New from Colorado," "Walkin' in LA"), living on the wrong side of societal expectations ("If Mama Could See Me" and the title cut, which features a vocal cameo from Willie Nelson), and watching fate catch up with your friends ("Goodbye Michelangelo").
Earle doesn't always sound as keenly inspired as he did when he was writing stuff like this in the '80s and '90s, but his craft is, if anything, better, and similarly his voice is showing its age but his phrasing is as smart and dramatically effective as it has ever been.
So You Wannabe an Outlaw is something plenty of Steve Earle fans have been wanting for years, a no-excuses country album that updates his breakthrough work, and it's an effort that should please his core audience while also sounding like an album Earle made entirely on his own terms.