Steve Earle: Townes

By: Sarah Hagerman

I used to wake and run with the moon
I lived like a rake and a young man
I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds
My laughter the devil would frighten
The sun she would come and beat me back down
But every cruel day had its nightfall
I'd welcome the stars with wine and guitars
Full of fire and forgetful

There was a time in his life when Townes Van Zandt used to travel between Aspen and Crested Butte on his horse Amigo, spending months enjoying relative tranquility in the Rockies. Van Zandt would eventually have to sell his beloved Amigo, and, recounting this onstage when I saw him at the Paramount in Austin, Steve Earle said, "I believe he began to die that day." But it was on tour in Colorado a few years ago, as Earle's bus wound its way through a blinding snowstorm between the two towns, that he saw an uncanny specter in the swirling white haze blowing across the road. "I swear I saw Townes and Amigo about five times that night," he said, and it was then that he decided to record an album of Van Zandt's songs. The resulting record is Townes (released May 12 on New West), and it should hopefully serve to expose Van Zandt's work to a larger audience, spreading the words of an authentic American poet.

Although his songs have found their way into many setlists and album track listings over the years, Earle is particularly suited to this task, having had a close protégé/friendship with Van Zandt. For Townes most of the songs were recorded as solo performances first, to capture them as originally done by his teacher as Earle best remembers him, with other instruments added later. He astutely picks better-knowns like "Pancho and Lefty," (famously recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), "Rake" and "To Live is to Fly," alongside lesser-knowns like the playful "Loretta" and the hallucinatory longing of "(Quicksilver Dreams of) Maria," his world-weary voice befitting the material and the production being, mostly, rough and tumble. You can hear the tinny echoes of guitar strings and the hiss of harmonica bleeds, the music reaching deep into the blues and old time, with subtly surreal touches in parts. Excellent string band versions of the road-scarred "White Freightliner," the lovely, comforting "Don't Take It Too Bad" and the swaying waltz of "Delta Momma Blues," all featuring Darrell Scott (banjo, dobro), Dennis Crouch (bass), Tim O'Brien (mandolin) and Shad Cobb (fiddle), recall Earle's work with the Del McCoury Band on The Mountain.

"Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" features tightly-wound verbal switch-offs between Earle and son Justin Townes Earle (a hell raising survivor in his own right, at age 27), while "Where I Lead Me" shuffles with grit. The only track where I would argue the framing is obtrusive is "Lungs." Produced by John King of The Dust Brothers, Tom Morello's signature guitar scratching, Earle's distorted vocals and the drum machine-like beat render it a bit too mechanical, less starkly terrifying, although it does filter out nicely into the touching softness of "No Place to Fall."

Overall though, Earle captures this timeless music handsomely. One of the best songwriters to tread this ground (and personally, I don't usually use qualifiers like "the best," but fuck it, it's true…), Van Zandt understood gut wrenching conciseness, shining frankness, and lingual elegance on a mesmerizing level few do, showing how you make every drop count. The characters that travel through his work come from genuine, unglamorous places, rendered in a landscape that brings the lows and highs, the anguish and ecstasy, of this existence to the forefront. While the heart-worn yarns that surround Van Zandt have passed into folklore, fingerprints smudged across dive bars and shadows cast on the walls of cheap motels, the songs he left us are the cherished manifestation. Slyly grinning, stubbornly loving, searching for human goodness, collapsing in darkness or pitching empty bottles at the moon, that spirit resonates strong. With Townes, Earle has given us a fitting testimonial to his extraordinary legacy.

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[Published on: 8/25/09]

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