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.
His best work lay in the kind of narrative songwriting that Earle learned from hanging around in a circle of young songwriters, the undoubted leader of which was Townes Van Zandt, a sad, sweet-voiced genius possessed of a self-destructive streak that made Earle’s look tame, and who made Hank Williams look like a member of the Poor Clares. (On one memorable occasion, Van Zandt showed up in Nashville to try to sober Earle up. This was notably unsuccessful.) It was with Van Zandt that Earle honed his gift for dealing with big issues through the small stories in which those issues live–a civilian truck driver in Baghdad (“Home To Houston”), a prison guard on Death Row (“Ellis Unit One”) and a grunt in a backwater Confederate army patrol (“Ben McCulloch”). In his life, Earle managed to pull out of the morass into which his mentor would disappear. Now, heavier than he was in his younger days and with a beard out of Ezekiel, Earle could be a lost mountain preacher who never quite got a chance to heal his friend, who died of similarly accumulated excesses on January 1, 1997, forty-four years to the day since Hank Williams had died in his car. At Van Zandt’s memorial service, Guy Clark, an extraordinary Texas musician in his own right, got up to sing and said, “I’ve been rehearsing this gig for fifteen years.”
“This record is a gift from Townes,” Earle explains. “It’s one of those things, you know, one of the strange things is that part of it is vanity. I’m a singer-songwriter and this is one of the best records I ever made, and that kind of hurts my feelings. That’s a hard one to reconcile. Part of it is about oral tradition. It needed to be done and it needed to be done by someone who saw Townes at the height of his powers and who was capable of doing it.
“We were all attracted to him for the right reasons. We were all attracted to greatness. But some of us were mistaken at times about what we perceived to be important about Townes. A lot of people made the mistake of believing that it was about how he lived. It would be impossible for me to nail down at one given point what I believed and didn’t believe. All I know is what I believe now–that he was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and he was an alcoholic and probably had some mental health issues. All those were separate things. They don’t have anything to do with each other.”
The music on Townes is simple and literally homespun; Earle recorded most of it in his New York apartment, accompanying himself on the guitar. He does a fine job on “Pancho And Lefty,” but his best work is on the lesser-known pieces from Van Zandt’s vast catalogue. “Colorado Girl” is all sunlight and shadows, and he bounces through “Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold” like a grifter with a fine story to tell. But it’s in the cold honesty of “Rake” where Earle comes closest to telling Van Zandt’s story in the writer’s own voice, as though Van Zandt were a character in Earle’s music, like the truckdriver, the prison guard or the Confederate private. There is sinew to the music, and blood in the words when he sings:
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
“I don’t know why Townes did what he did,” Earle muses. “I don’t know why he didn’t think enough of himself to overcome it. I did. I overcame it. There’s some survivor guilt involved in every second of this record. Abso-fucking-lutely.” And there is love there, too. Love, pure and unlabored.