Steve Earle once noted that Townes Van Zandt was a great songwriter but maybe not the best role model. Earle would know: He has collected wrong moves like charms for a bracelet. Heroin addict. Convicted felon. Seven trips to the altar. Signed a contract with MCA.
None of this stuff is lethal on its own (well, almost none … people have gone into MCA and never been seen again), but put it all together and Earle is lucky to be around to give opinions on any subject. And while he's spent the better part of his life proving the latter half of the aforementioned observation, his new album Townes supports the former half.
As one might guess, Townes is Steve Earle’s loving musical tribute to his fallen friend — he’d already named his son Justin Townes Earle — and, in another incredible non-surprise, it’s an amazing nod to one of America’s greatest and most influential songwriters by the absolute best guy for the job. In spite of Van Zandt’s various issues — drug and alcohol addiction chief among them — he was a gifted songwriter with the ability to touch people at their very core. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan were huge fans. And while Earle has dabbled in musical areas that Van Zandt never dreamed of, he's exhibited a similar penchant for writing deeply moving songs that enrapture his audience.
Given Earle’s long friendship with and affinity for Van Zandt and the emotional connection between their songwriting styles, it could be difficult for the uninitiated to pick the Van Zandt songs out of Earle’s set list. Of course, Earle would never sing a Townes Van Zandt song without a long, loud credit — he once famously declared, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
Townes' response? “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”
Maybe, but he was spot on target about Townes Van Zandt.