Maybe you know Townes Van Zandt as the drunken cult hero. Or maybe you know him as the broken folk singer that sealed his mouth shut huffing airplane glue, the country outlaw, the reckless junky, the manic-depressive or the guy who lived in a trailer on the outskirts of town. Or maybe you don't know him at all. If you fall into any of these categories (and even if you don't), Steve Earle's latest album Townes (released May 12 on New West) is for you.
"People want to believe a lot of shit [about Van Zandt] and that's part of what this record's about. It's about songs; it's not about what anybody perceives or anything to do with lifestyle," says Earle. "The point is, he was one of the best songwriters that ever lived and I'm dealing with that on this record."
Townes separates the myth from the music, and Earle is perhaps better equipped to educate us on Van Zandt than anyone. The two first met at one of Earle's 1972 shows in Houston. After heckling him from the crowd, Earle shut Van Zandt up by tearing through Townes' difficult "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" (which appears on the album as a duet with Earle's son and Van Zandt's namesake, Justin Townes Earle). Van Zandt was already one of Earle's heroes, from that point until the day he died at age 52 on New Year's Day 1997 he would serve as Earle's mentor and close friend.
"Townes is the reason I'm here more than any other human being on the planet," says Earle. "What I saw in Townes was someone committed to writing songs at this incredibly high artistic level, whether they ever made any money or not. And there's a lot of survivor guilt involved in the sense that I'm still here and I got sober and I survived similar stuff to what he went through and he didn't. And there's also the fact that I made a lot more money than he's made, so I do feel guilty about that from time to time."
There's no better way to repay his teacher than by, as Earle puts it, doing everything he can "to make sure that people know he was here." So, he decided the time had come to make Townes, an album Earle had been thinking about "for at least a decade." Having played his songs forever and even having recorded a few, Earle cherry picked 15 nuggets from Van Zandt's legendary, though criminally under-appreciated, catalog. But it wasn't just "covering" Van Zandt, Earle says he was "trying to do performances that were based on the way I remember him playing these songs when I first met him in the mid-70s."
|Steve Earle & Townes Van Zandt by Jim Herrington|
At that point Van Zandt wasn't the withered man robbed of his facilities that many may recall, back then he was a wicked guitar picker and a fierce solo performer with a powerful voice. Earle retreated to his Greenwich Village apartment and laid down 12 of the songs alone, just vocals and acoustic guitar, channeling peak Van Zandt. "Recording these songs was a lot more exhilarating than I thought it would be," recalls Earle. "I'd find these little grooves that were pretty close to the way [I remember] Townes did it and it was like goose-bumps, elevated heart rate, sweaty palms kind of stuff."
Earle then took the tapes to Nashville where he fleshed out the tracks with overdubs and recorded three additional songs with stud bluegrass players Tim O'Brien (mandolin), Darrell Scott (banjo), Dennis Crouch (bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddle).
In selecting material, there were a few obvious choices like Van Zandt staples "Pancho and Lefty," "To Live Is To Fly" (featuring Earle's wife Allison Moorer on harmony), and the haunting hit "Rake," but Earle also wanted to show off Van Zandt's range. "I like really dark, scary stuff but I also think there's more to Townes than that" admits Earle. "I think he was really funny and he had this incredible command of language that is really rare." "Delta Momma Blues" shows some of that humor, "Colorado Girl" points to Van Zandt's love of nature and every song reveals a true master of the craft. But, it's the terrifyingly dark songs like "Lungs" (the only track produced by Dust Brother John King) featuring Tom Morello on guitar and the desperate tale of "Marie" who "didn't wake up this morning/ She didn't even try/ She just rolled over and went to heaven/ my little boy safe inside," that bring listeners to their knees.
|Steve Earle by Manny Moss|
As much as Earle is the appropriate protector of Van Zandt's legacy because he studied under him and observed him closer than anyone, there's another reason Earle is the right man for this job. Like they say, it takes one to know one, and Earle truly followed in Van Zandt's footprints, falling prey to hard drugs, a hard life and various wives. But even more than sharing a sordid past, it turns out that just like his mentor, Steve Earle is fighting somewhat of an identity battle himself.
Starting with his 1986 debut Guitar Town, Earle has been branded the father of New Country, Alt-Country, a country outlaw, a political rocker, a folk singer, a stone cold junky, a convict, the guy with all those ex-wives and that dude from The Wire. When talking to a fellow writer about my pending interviewing with Earle, my colleague relayed how intimidated and even scared he was of Earle. And Earle recalls how Tony Brown, one of his first producers, said he "looked like the kind of guy that carried a switchblade." But in reality, while Earle may be intense, under the rough exterior he's a sweetheart and if you ask him, he says, "I'm kind of a hippie." And while all of the above may be true, none of it is as important as the songs Earle has written.
|Steve Earle by Ted Barron|
But that doesn't stop journalists from wanting to paint him as the dark ex-druggie, or even the political rocker with a mission. "There's absolutely no correlation between getting fucked up and creativity as far as I'm concerned," says Earle. "I make better records and write better songs than I ever did when I was using, and I've been sober almost 15 years. I've made ten records sober, so the score is ten to four."
And in regards to the "political" albatross marketing folks like to hang around his neck, he says, "I'm not a political songwriter. I write about politics because I'm a political person. When I die they'll figure out I wrote more songs about girls than anything else."
So maybe by rectifying Townes' story, making sure the years of drug and alcohol abuse, shock therapy, sloppy shows and crappy recordings don't overshadow the heroic body of work, maybe Earle is also setting his own record straight, making sure we don't remember him the wrong way, because just like Townes, Steve Earle is one of the great American songwriters, too.
Steve Earle is on tour now; dates available here.
For more on Townes Van Zandt check out Be Here To Love Me.
Portions of this interview appeared in the most recent print issue of Blurt Magazine.
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