Steve Earle – Townes
New West Records (2009)
By Kasey Anderson
By now, anyone who has followed the career of Steve Earle with even a modicum of consistency has heard or read several dozen stories about his relationship with the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Part friendship, part apprenticeship, Earle and Van Zandt forged a relationship that stood the tests of time and mutual substance abuse until Van Zandt passed in 1997 (which Earle promptly acknowledged with the poignant, heart-wrenching “Fort Worth Blues”).
While the details of any story involving Van Zandt are certainly debatable (as is the case with most anyone who has been lionized to Townes’ degree), the quality of the body of work he left behind is not. And who better to honor that body of work than Steve Earle? After one listen to Townes, Earle’s tribute to his friend and mentor, the answer is clear: nobody. Nobody could interpret these songs any better than Steve Earle.
Earle said his intent with Townes was to play the songs as closely to the way he remembered Van Zandt playing them as possible, and in many cases, he has done exactly that. “Brand New Companion” swaggers with the kind of lusty confidence Van Zandt displayed at his best while “Colorado Girl” and “Loretta” mirror the duality of Van Zandt, who moved seamlessly between lovesick poetry and braggadocious barroom advances. With each faithful reconstruction, Earle manages the difficult balancing act between paying homage to Van Zandt and creating an album that will stand alongside the most celebrated works of Earle’s own career.
Where Earle strays from Van Zandt, he does so – to borrow a phrase from Townes – for the sake of the song, as on “Lungs,” to which Tom Morello adds his trademark turntable guitar squeal. Van Zandt used to say that “Lungs” should be screamed, not sung, and Earle lets Morello do the screaming, to great effect.
Of all the collaborations on Townes (which features Earle’s wife, Allison Moorer Earle, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien in addition to Morello), perhaps the most notable is Earle’s trading of verses with his son, Justin Townes Earle, on “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” the song Earle allegedly performed as a rebuttal to Van Zandt’s heckling at an early show. As the younger Earle’s career as an artist begins to gather steam, one can sense the passing of the torch between the lines of Van Zandt’s poker-inspired masterpiece.
However, those waiting for Justin to be anointed heir to the Great American Songwriter throne are going to have to hold their breath a while, as Townes offers further proof that Earle’s best work may well still lie ahead of him. – (9/10)