In the music spotlight: Steve Earle

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American singer-songwriter Steve Earle photographed at Dyckman Farmhouse in New York in March 2017. | Chad Batka

Steve Earle has been dubbed Americana’s punk poet. His prolific catalog of bracing songs have helped to secure a firm grip on the title for more than 30 years. 1986’s “Guitar Town” romanticized a reckless life on the road that still rings true. He pulled no punches when describing villains on both sides of the battle during “Rich Man’s War” in 2005. Earle’s current songs continue to fit hard truths within cautionary tales.

Summer 2017 saw the release of Earle’s 17th studio album “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” The collection reflects a notorious past of hard living and knack for bad-luck tales, even though they’re balanced by the nicotine-etched singer’s own decades dedicated to serving better angels. Country heartbreak and grim wit mark the outlaw’s short list of rewards.

The Quixotic struggle to maintain sanity and a musical career is reflected in the title cut’s duet with Willie Nelson. Songs like the Waylon Jennings-influenced “Lookin’ for a Woman” and the gut-wrenching, Hank Williams-styled “You Broke My Heart” paint the picture of an avowed romantic’s string of heartbreaks. “Ring in the pocket of a vest of gray, that’s the way a cheatin’ song begins,” sings Earle with friend and collaborator Miranda Lambert on “This is How it Ends.”

The story takes an even darker turn with the two-ton tale of murderous revenge “Fixin’ to Die.” The song lurches like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Earle’s character may have gotten the drop on his faithless lover, but he knows his own soul is doomed because of it. “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” gives voice to a jailbird who’s thankful that his late mother never lived to see the shattering of every dream she held for her baby boy.

Although his trusty companions the Dukes are sure to return to Chicago soon, Earle is leaving his band at home for his annual winter residency at City Winery. The pair of intimate solo shows next week will serve as a master class of dangerously revealing songcraft. Earle must find the icy weather refreshing, because he’ll return in February.

* Steve Earle, 8 p.m. Jan. 8-9 and Feb. 12-13, City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph;

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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