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Steve Earle’s “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw”

Marking Musical Influences and Milestones

Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy go way back. Kennedy held the “guitar pickin’ party” in 1985 where Earle first heard guitarist Mike McAdam play.“There were about 100 people at that party, but Steve noticed Mike’s playing, and Mike became a member of Steve’s band for [20 years].That was back in the day when songwriters just hung around each other,” Kennedy says. “It was right after Steve made Guitar Town. But our working relationship started ten years later, when we produced I Feel Alright.”

Those album sessions are engraved on Kennedy’s memory. It was during the recording of Earle’s song “Valentine’s Day” that Kennedy’s wife called to say she’d gone into labor. Twenty-two years later, Kennedy scheduled our interview around his “Valentine’s Day” daughter, Evie’s, college graduation, which fell just before the June 16 release of Earle’s latest, the Richard Bennett-produced So You Wanna Be an Outlaw

It’s all tangled—part and parcel of a life making music: family milestones marked by sessions and vice versa. Yet, Kennedy is quick to point out that, even an adult lifetime later, the way he and Earle make records has remained pretty constant.

“The goal always with Steve is to record as much live stuff as possible. And we kind of pretend we’re on tape, even though we’re on Pro Tools 24/96,” Kennedy explains. “If we get a great first take and somebody made a few mistakes, we just punch it in like we did in the old days. And we don’t really like having lots of options; we like to commit early.

“Everything was recorded through an API console—all the API preamps in the hybrid API/Neve they have at Arlyn,” Kennedy continues. “It’s tricky to do what they did, joining the two boards, because the voltages are different, but they built a master section that joins them together. I recorded through the API and monitored through the Neve. I like the toughness and punchiness of an API console, and I use a lot of API equipment in my studio.”

So, that’s six pieces going down live—guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore (aka The Mastersons), drummer Brad Pemberton, pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, bassist Kelly Looney, and Earle himself, playing guitar or mandolin and singing keeper vocals. The project needed room to spread out, and plenty of gear to go around.

“Other than two songs that we cut live down the street at the Continental Club, we did the whole record in Arlyn Studios [Austin, Texas]. I was somewhat familiar with the studio, though it had been awhile since I’d worked there,” says Kennedy. “Freddy and Lisa Fletcher, the owners, are great folks. It’s a great studio—the acoustical space, the staff and the gear. Every morning in the 10 days I was there we’d come in and eat breakfast tacos—the most tacos I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

Earle told Kennedy that he wanted the album to have an Outlaw-ish approach, and that Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes was his inspiration. The opening/title song is a perfect start: a duet between Earle and original outlaw Willie Nelson.

“For Steve’s voice, I’ve got a special, old Neumann tube mic that’s modified by Fred Cameron; he was famous for doing little mods to classic German microphones that made them even better than the original,” Kennedy explains. “Steve sang through a hybrid 67/87; it’s the mic that you would hear on most of our records for the past 22 years.

“Steve’s guitar amp is a Vox AC50, which he bought from [Bob Dylan guitarist] Charlie Sexton,” Kennedy continues. “He had two AC50s, and somehow Steve convinced him that one of them should be his. I had a custom cabinet made for that by [speaker manufacturer] Scumback; the back opens and closes, so if you want a really tight Marshall sound, close the back; if you want more sound spilling out and filling the room, like to get all the sparkly overtones of a 12-string, you open it. Steve played a ’55 Tele and a ’55 Les Paul; that’s his birth year, 1955, so he’s really into ’55 guitars.”

Kennedy captures Earle’s amp via an RCA 74B, a ribbon mic from the ’40s. “I have a lot of those RCA ribbons,” he says. “The 74B is like a baby 44. I just like ribbon mics on guitars; Chris Masterson’s guitar was miked with a 74B as well.” 

The engineer brought those ribbon mics with him from Nashville to Austin, as well as a collection of his favorite drum mics. His choices include an Elecro-Voice 868 on kick drum (“because it’s punchy and tough-sounding, and goes an octave lower than other kick drum mics”), a 57 on snare top, an RCA Varacoustic ribbon as a room mic and an AKG C12A as an overhead.

“I don’t use overheads in a traditional sense,” Kennedy says. “I’m one of those who uses the Glyn Johns method of putting the mic over the drummer’s shoulder. That picks up the toms and cymbals.” Kennedy also put up a trash mic near the floor, to add more personality to some of the rocking tracks.

He used a more clean sound, however, on ballads such as the duet by Earle and Miranda Lambert, “This Is How It Ends.” Lambert joined the band at Arlyn, and sang live with them on the heartbreaker she co-wrote with Earle.

“You need that chemistry of two people singing together at the same time,” Kennedy says. “All the great duo acts—the Everly brothers, Simon and Garfunkel—the two of them sing together, and the synergy is tremendous.”