Steve Earle is one of America’s great singer-songwriters. Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. In this week’s N.Y. Times, I learned that for many years Van Zandt was Earle’s mentor. For some reason, I’d never noticed the influence.
Van Zandt’s writing was intensely romantic and personal, shot through with melancholy. Every song was a ballad, sung slow and sparely. Earle’s lyrics hit many of these notes, but he is an intensely political writer, where Van Zandt wasn’t. Also, Earle’s music style covers a lot more territory from up tempo rockers to slow, mournful Townes-like ballads.
It’s a wonderful day when Steve Earle releases an album of Townes covers called, aptly enough, Townes. It’s like you’ve hit the daily double.
The Times features a wonderfully comprehensive story about the album and Earle’s problematic relationship with Van Zandt. It asks the question: how could one of America’s great singer-songwriters (Van Zandt) been virtually unknown except among the musical cognoscenti? Certainly, the author of Pancho and Lefty, To Live is to Fly, and White Freightliner Blues deserved more than to live in relative obscurity most of his life. Earle alludes to drugs and other demons that afflicted Van Zandt and blocked any recognition he deserved.
After listening to a number of Earle’s covers, I can’t decide what I think of the record. Some of Van Zandt’s best-known songs are performed in a stark, extremely spare style. They feature little more than Earle’s cracked voice and his precise guitar picking. While both Van Zandt and Earle feature singing voices with more character than beauty, I find I prefer Van Zandt’s, which retained a bit more charm and sweetness. The songs featuring a musical ensemble, are less known but more appealing and soften Earle’s stark vocal style. I prefer them. I really miss If I Needed You, one of Townes’ most evocative, achingly beautiful songs, which Earle omitted for some reason.
So if you love Steve, buy this record. But if you don’t know Townes, then you owe it to yourself to hear the incomparable original. That was a man. That was an artist. We’ll never see his like again.
About a decade or so ago, I saw Townes perform live at a New York City club. He was a performer who didn’t come to you. You had to come to him, to work at the listening experience and then bask in the piercing beauty and sadness of his lyrics. His voice was an acquired taste, nasal, even slightly off key, but an integral part of the package.
But the thing that was most surprising was the hilarious stories and jokes. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the jokes as much or more than the songs. At times, it seemed that the songs might be incidental to the comedy. The jokes were funny but odd and off kilter and always focussed on misfits and their folly. It was perfectly fitting for Townes himself.
RE: STEVE EARLE RELEASES ‘TOWNES’
MY COMMENT: Nice post! Thanks.
Marc Silverstein says
I have a live album that Todd has heard with three of ’em singing together.
Marc Silverstein says
Reviewed by Matt Bjorke
Together at the BlueBird Cafe was originally recorded in 1995 as a benefit for the Interfaith Dental Clinic in Nashville, The CD is an all acoustic effort with each artist interweaving a song along with some neat anecdotes about the songs they are singing. Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark performed at this benefit.
Townes Van Zandt was a respected singer/songwriter from Texas who died not too long ago. The writer of many hit songs, Townes is probably most well known for his song “Pancho and Lefty.” Guy Clark is one of the most well respected singers around Nashville who continues to do his own thing and is not worried about any radio airplay. The most well known participant on the CD is Steve Earle. As one of the best newcomers from the 1980’s Earle had a successful early career derailed by drugs and alcohol. Steve now owns his own label and is considered one of Country music’s finest vocalist/performers around.
Guy Clark’s “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis” is a bluesy song that is about a woman who went to Memphis via a limo because she wanted to. Not because she should, but she decided to do it anyway. An irrelevant song, nonetheless it is a fun way to open the CD.
Townes Van Zandt’s “Katie Belle” is a lullaby for which Townes discusses why he decided to write lullabies. These stories alone make this CD worth owning, especially if you are a fan of any of the artists on this CD.
Steve Earle’s “Valentine’s Day” includes a great introduction about how he remarried his wife and said stuff like “I wrote this song because I cannot get a license” (remember his drug and alcohol problems) so he wrote this song for his wife. A nice and romantic song that is sure to inspire others to try and write a romantic Valentines song.
Perhaps one of Townes Van Zandt’s most well known tracks, “Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love” is one of those songs that discusses how a man doesn’t care what he has as long as he is with his wife. He says he won’t leave for any reason at all.
“Dublin Blues” is Guy Clark’s song about a man who wishes he was back in Austin, TX but he’s stuck in Dublin, Ireland. Guy is one of those poetic types who needs to be heard to truly understand what type of an artist they are. I could see Kenny Rogers singing this song and Guy’s vocals are similar to Kenny’s.
The song that closes out this CD is a wonderful acoustic rendition of Steve’s rebellious hit “Copperhead Road.” I really like this song and to hear the acoustic version is a treat. When listening to this song and all the others on the CD you really feel like you were a part of the audience that night in 1995. This is one CD that is worth owning if you love to hear stuff off the beaten path or enjoy any of these artists.
Baby Took a Limo to Memphis – Guy Clark
My Old Friend the Blues – Steve Earle
Introduction to Katie Belle
Katie Belle – Townes Van Zandt
The Cape – Guy Clark
Introduction to Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day – Steve Earle
Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love – Townes Van Zandt
Randall Knife – Guy Clark
Tom Ames’ Prayer – Steve Earle
The Interfaith Dental Clinic (The Reason For The Benefit)
A Song For – Townes Van Zandt
Dublin Blues – Guy Clark
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied – Steve Earle
Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
Immigrant Eyes – Guy Clark
Sirocco’s Pizza (Intro to Mercenary Song)
Mercenary Song – Steve Earle
Tecumseh Valley – Townes Van Zandt
Copperhead Road – Steve Earle