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.