Late in his set at the Ryman Auditorium, Steve Earle said he’d stood onstage in Chicago many moons ago and told fans that all of his dreams had come true. It was in that moment, he said, that he realized he needed to find some new dreams, and find them fast.
One of those second-act dreams came true Friday night when the so-called last of the hardcore troubadours, whose career has spanned 17 albums and survived all manner of slings and arrows, headlined the Ryman for the first time.
“This is a big deal for us,” he told the crowd.
A child of Texas, Earle was seven years old visiting his grandmother in Nashville, he said, when he first came to the Ryman, where he watched from the balcony as Bill Monroe performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He said he’d been thinking about that experience all day before launching into “You Broke My Heart,” an old-timey sounding country waltz that he wrote in the spirit of the venue.
“You Broke My Heart” features on Earle’s latest, So You Wanna Be Outlaw, an album that functions as a tribute of sorts to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and their fight to wrest artistic control away from the anal retentive Nashville studio system. Like so many country greats who get slapped with the problematic “outlaw” tag, Earle’s output has been both traditional and subversive, a fact that was evident in a set list that moved peripatetically across genres.
The front end of Earle’s show drew heavily from the new album, and the third song of the night, “The Firebreak Line,” tipped its hat to America’s firefighters. With wildfires menacing much of the West, the tune is a modern-day folk number that finds Earle channeling his innermost Woody Guthrie. Another set highlight was “News From Colorado,” a song he co-wrote with his niece Emily Earle and ex-wife Allison Moorer before they split.
“Emily is in the crowd tonight, and Allison is not,” Earle deadpanned, adding that the audience would be hearing more from his niece, a Nashville-based songwriter who “survived for four weeks on The Voice without managing to end up in the hot tub with CeeLo.”
Hanging over the night, as if in benediction, was the legacy of Guy Clark, a mentor to Earle and a host of other Texas and Tennessee songwriters through the years. Before performing “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a song written about Clark shortly after his death, Earle spoke about the “L.A. Freeway” writer’s final days and the all-night bus trip he took with Clark’s inner sanctum to deliver Guy’s ashes to Santa Fe. He then talked about his old teacher’s decision to co-write late in his career, a move that inspired Earle’s own recent co-writing ventures.
Back in the ‘70s, Clark had advised against co-writing, but he eventually changed his tune. “Mainly I just got stuck, I ran out of shit to say,” he told American Songwriter in 2011. “I’ve found that with co-writing, there are a lot of young phenomenal songwriters and guitar players that come over here and write. And I learn so much from these guys. I’ll go, ‘Wow, how did you think of that?’ Or, ‘let me learn it.’”
Earle encored the show with “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.” A song from Clark’s first album about a young kid and his hero’s death, it brought the night full circle.
Opening the show was Lucero, the Memphis bar-band exemplars who were playing the Mother Church for the first time. “We’ve never played the Ryman before but this is quite a place ya’ll have got,” said frontman Ben Nichols, who swigged whiskey throughout the set and joked that “you’d be nervous too if it was your first time playing the Ryman.”
There must be something about the Ryman and the memory of grandparents. Earle spoke about his grandmother, and before the last Lucero song of the night, Nichols wondered aloud what his grandfather would have thought about him playing the august venue. With just his accordionist, the unassuming frontman then delivered an emotional reading of “The War,” a song from 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings that recounts his grandfather’s experience in World War II. “Cause takin’ orders never suited me, giving them out was much worse,” Nichols sang, summoning a spirit kindred to his own.