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Published: 2009/05/22
by Brian Robbins

Townes Steve Earle

New West

Even if you weren’t familiar with the music of Townes Van Zandt, his tragic life, or his friendship with Steve Earle, the newly-released Townes would stand on its own two feet as a great Steve Earle album.

Knowing all of the above, however, makes Townes almost too raw and lovely and haunting. For all that’s been said, sung, and written about Townes Van Zandt since his death in 1997, this album may be the greatest tribute of all. To listen to Townes is to witness a deeply private moment: you’re standing alongside Steve Earle as he nestles a beautiful handmade marker into the dirt of his hero’s grave.

It’s that good.

Townes is more than a tribute album; if Bob Dylan recorded an album of Woody Guthrie songs, that would be a tribute album. Referring to Townes Van Zandt as a mentor to Steve Earle isn’t enough he was a friend. From when they first crossed paths in 1972 during a performance at a Houston club (Earle ripped through a blazing version of Van Zandt’s own “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” to silence his heckling from the audience), the pair shared a bond that remained intact for the next 25 years. There was sweetness (Steve’s son Justin Townes Earle, born in 1982) and there was weirdness (a shitfaced Van Zandt attempting to give a badly strung-out Earle a temperance lecture at one point in the early ’90s). In the end, Steve Earle cleaned up and began creating the best music of his life; Townes Van Zandt, always admired by his peers and generally ignored by the public, withered and began to dry up creatively. His was the sort of death the elderly suffer: a heart attack following surgery for a broken hip at the age of 52.

Townes begins with Van Zandt’s most well-known (and most-often covered) song, “Pancho and Lefty”. Earle treats it lovingly a basic guitar and vocal arrangement with subtle background instrumentation. In lesser hands, the performance could come off as a tired clichEarle simply nails it and moves on.

There are blues: the just-right grassiness of the driving “White Freightliner Blues” and “Delta Momma Blues” (both featuring Dennis Crouch, Tim O’Brien, Darrel Scott, and Shad Cobb), the road-weary Dylanish “Colorado Girl”, and the harsher, Lightnin’ Hopkins-sounding “Brand New Companion”. There’s front-porch sweetness in the gentle sway of “Don’t Take It Too Bad” and Earle’s duets with wife Allison Moorer “To Live Is To Fly” and “Loretta” (the latter sounding like a country cousin to Neil Young’s “Dance Dance Dance”). Time bends, buckles, and gives way to allow Justin Townes Earle to duet with father Steve on the very song that silenced the heckling Van Zandt 37 years ago – “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” machine-gun lyrics and all.

And then there is “Lungs”. The original, in its minor-keyed finger-picked starkness, was ominous – Earle’s version on Townes is absolutely frightening. His acoustic guitar leads us into the song, picking up where Van Zandt last left the rolling riff. Suddenly, the guitar drops out and all we have is Earle’s vocal, miked like an old Howlin’ Wolf blues song. By the second verse the acoustic guitar is back and Earle’s growl is free of effects, but now there’s a percussion part that sounds like the hand claps of skeletons. Slowly emerging from the shadows comes the electric guitar of Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), evolving from a moan to a hounds-of-hell roar by the final verse with the rhythm pounding down on top of it. The song explodes into sheets of madness, abruptly crashing to a smoking, smoldering end. It is the most terrifying 2 minutes and 18 seconds of recorded music you’ve ever heard. (Is this what the demons who pursued Townes Van Zandt sounded like in his head?)

No doubt there’s a part of Steve Earle that needed to make Townes simply because of his love for his departed friend. When he was done, he could have chosen to tuck this music away. Instead, he chose to share it with us.

The question is, are we worthy?

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