Steve Earle | 06.19.09 | Texas

Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Manny Moss

Steve Earle :: 06.19.09 :: Paramount Theatre :: Austin, TX

Steve Earle :: 06.19.09 :: Austin, TX
In 1972 at The Old Quarter in Houston, a seventeen-year-old was playing to a nearly empty room. In the front row, the songwriter he idolized was sitting with his boots propped on the stage. Although his idol had a reputation for being a quiet, sensitive soul, tonight he was certainly loud and wasted, heckling the young musician to play "The Wabash Cannonball" between each song. Embarrassment growing in his mind, the young musician finally had to admit he didn't know the song.

"You call yourself a folk singer and you don't know 'The Wabash Cannonball'?!" his idol yelled.

The young man gathered his composure and proceeded to play one of his idol's own songs, and a complicated one to sing at that. Fast forward 37 years later, and the young songwriter has since survived years of dangerously hard living followed by a productive renewal of purpose in his sobriety, his salt and pepper beard now growing long. When he played that same song on stage at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, on a steamy June evening, he ripped into it with a vicious energy, after he recounted this story. When he was done, he looked up at the audience and finished the tale.

"And then he shut up," he said.

The song was "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," and the two men in question were Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt would become a friend and teacher to Earle after that night, and Earle's latest album Townes, an entire album of Van Zandt's songs, is a testament to that artistic and personal influence. Many have covered Van Zandt, who passed away on New Year's Day in 1997, his heart weakened by years of drug and alcohol abuse. But Earle is in a unique position to share some insight into the man behind the myths.

Steve Earle :: 06.19.09 :: Austin, TX
Following an opening set by up-and-comer Joe Pug (of whom I only caught a couple songs that both displayed winning lyrical chops with a captivating stage presence), Earle took the stage, dedicating the show to Stephen Bruton, a much-loved Texas guitarist, songwriter and producer who recently passed away. Armed with acoustic guitars, mandolins and a harmonica, Earle wove his own material through Van Zandt's in the setlist, the stripped down setting letting the hefty words of both songwriters sink in. It was interesting to notice how Earle's demeanor seemed to subtly change as he performed the Van Zandt songs, his voice taking on a more guttural edge as he shuttered from side to side with possession. Tonight, we also sat down with Earle's stories. Even if some stories are well repeated, like the story of their first face-to-face meeting at The Old Quarter (Earle had been working up the nerve to talk to Van Zandt for awhile before that, even watching him in awe at a birthday party for Jerry Jeff Walker he crashed, where Van Zandt showed up in the wee hours and quickly lost all his money and a buckskin jacket in a craps game), it was a way to celebrate the artistic legacy of a true genius while bringing him into a flesh and blood creature, bruises, moments of grace and all.

There's something about Van Zandt's writing which strikes me as sincere. It doesn't fuck around. He would forgo heaps of twisting symbolism and artsy word play to keep things lean and deceptively simple, refreshingly naked with flab and pretension stripped away. I find his work is more devastating, more gorgeous, more graceful and more potent for that economy. Van Zandt's words floor you with stark beauty captured in amber and then absolutely flatten your heart with a weighty fist. Earle really did his language justice in the live setting, lovingly singing the quietly sweeping love song (as much about a woman as the place itself) "Colorado Girl," and resonating hushed despair with "Marie." The latter, an upsetting portrait of a drifter couple, always crushes me. Before Earle played it, he said that although Townes himself came from a family with money, he "had a hard time figuring out why some people had so much and some people had so little, through no fault of their own." Van Zandt used to bring homeless people in to feed them and give them a place to stay (even to other's homes, when he didn't have his own place, as Earle explained).

Steve Earle :: 06.19.09 :: Austin, TX
Earle himself spent some time homeless when he was in the midst of his drug addiction, and Van Zandt even spoke to him about his problem at one point, in a visit during which he played Earle "Marie" for the first time. As Earle described it, it wasn't a confrontation so much as Van Zandt asking Earle if he was using clean needles, but, as he said dryly, "You know you're in trouble when Townes comes to your house to give you a temperance lecture." To introduce "Pancho and Lefty," he said he decided to record it first for Townes, jokingly likening it to your first day in prison, when you take on "the biggest motherfucker in the yard" to establish your toughness.

Earle has a lot of honesty and self-deprecating humor when it comes to his own life, giving him onstage accessibility and compassion with a no bullshit edge. He would never glamorize self-destruction. His tunes wind around that scar tissue, rising to the surface with a fighting spirit. He stubbornly refuses to accept that things should be the way they are, and thank god for that. Songs like "Rich Man's War" boil over with anger at the inherent unfairness of the disconnect between who fights and who decides, while "The Mountain" looks at mountaintop removal mining from the eyes of a miner who calls the peak home, a gorgeous mando rolling with its heartbreak. Both songs were powerfully placed in a succession of Earle tunes, including the rousing "City of Immigrants," which he played on an octave mandolin, and the gripping Celtic string band number "Dixieland," before he capped off the set with a one-two punch of Van Zandt's "Lungs" and "To Live is to Fly."

As Earle said, introducing "Lungs," "If this doesn't scare you, you're overmedicated." He exhaled its chilling vapor over us:

Well, won't you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsing
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that's passing.
Breath I'll take and breath I'll give
Pray the day ain't poison
Stand among the ones that live
In lonely indecision.

Van Zandt's music is often unfairly characterized as wholly gloomy, and much of it is heavy, even frighteningly so. His blues ran deep. But "To Live is the Fly" shows his gift at capturing illumination as well as darkness, even in the midst of his transitory existence. This song always gives me heartening acceptance, hope in strong proof. We often dwell in our tragedies, run from our mistakes. We fail, fall down, fuck up, but only by lifting ourselves back up do we gain grace.

Steve Earle & Townes Van Zandt
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that's real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own
But choice is yours to make
And time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea
Some toil upon the stone
To live is to fly
Low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out from your eyes

Earlier this year, on the night of Van Zandt's birthday, March 7, at a wine bar down the street from my apartment, we sat outside and listened to a gentleman playing that very song. Turns out he knew Van Zandt, although not very well, he professed, but he shared a few stories with us ("The last time I saw Townes, he parked his car in the middle of the street in New Braunfels and wandered off with a bottle of vodka in his hand..."). Texans love their mythology, and it seems everyone's got a tall tale or two about Townes in these parts, especially in these Austin streets haunted by the specter of musical legends. At one point during the show, a gentlemen sitting next to me said, his eyes turning to the Paramount's ceiling, "You know, they say there's ghosts in this theatre." My goose bumps could have been from the air conditioning, but closing my eyes, as I listened to Earle sing his teacher's enduring words, I wondered if he was right.

Continue reading for a more pics of Steve Earle in Austin...

Steve Earle is on tour now, dates available here.

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