In most labors of love, it’s ultimately the love that makes for all the labor. The more love there is, the more labor is involved. There are immensely talented musicians who so love the songs of their youth, and who are so devoted to their influences, that they choke audibly at the notion of covering the songs they so adore. For example, Eric Clapton has put out two albums of the blues standards through which he learned to become one of the greatest blues guitarists who ever lived. Both of them–From The Cradle and Me And Mr. Johnson–are suffused with a stultifying reverence. Clapton performs the songs like a man carrying a priceless vase across a white marble floor on roller skates.
Hence, when Steve Earle decided to put together an album of songs by his late friend and mentor, Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, he decided to grab the legacy by the horns and do the hard stuff at the beginning. The first song he recorded was “Pancho And Lefty,” the elegiac masterpiece that Van Zandt had handed to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983. They sang the thing like the last two seraphim left standing in the roadhouse and rode it all the way to Number One on the Billboard country charts. If you’re doing a tribute to Townes Van Zandt, and you love him and his music the way Earle does, this is the song that you simply cannot bungle. If you choose to do Hamlet, you don’t get lost halfway between “to be” and “not to be.”
“It was really exhilarating doing this,” Earle says, the words pouring out of him in a torrent as he shares an order of hamburgers that’s been delivered to an office in downtown Manhattan. “I recorded ‘Pancho And Lefty’ first. Which was sort of like that first day in jail and you go out in the yard and you find the biggest motherfucker out there and knock him out. And then you get to keep your radio. So I recorded that and ‘To Live Is To Fly’ [another signature Van Zandt composition] that very first day.”
In his case, Earle is entitled to both the metaphor and the material. He burst onto the scene with Guitar Town, his precocious 1986 debut that propelled him to the front rank of young country artists. But country couldn’t hold him entirely. Copperhead Road was an explosive piece of rock and roll that also featured some traditional Irish instruments popping up throughout the music in surprising places. (The title track, a song about a dynasty of bootleggers, begins with a flourish of the uilleann pipes.) At the same time, he spiraled into addiction. There were very few drugs he didn’t do in excess. He was busted repeatedly and he wound up in prison in 1994. Since then, he has cleaned himself up and made a new career out of gloriously eclectic music, including some of the most vivid and exciting political music of his time. He’s written tough, knowing songs against the death penalty and the war in Iraq. He wrote “John Walker’s Blues” about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” and caught all kinds of hell from the right because of it. Washington Square Serenade, his previous record, was a celebration of New York as a destination for immigrant cultures, old and new, released just as the anti-immigrant fever was hitting high tide. He’s done a radio show. He’s taught musicology. He’s writing a novel. He’s all the way back.