For a long time now, fans and artists have clamored for a tribute album dedicated to the late, great Townes Van Zandt, arguing that the influential singer-songwriter’s work needs preserved for the sake of posterity-a notion that would probably make the unassuming Van Zandt spin in his grave if not for the fact that his good friend and protégé Steve Earle would be the one to finally undertake the project. And nobody is more qualified than Steve Earle to make this record. Earle, after all, knew Van Zandt intimately, gave his son the middle name Townes, and has been famously quoted as saying, “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.”
“I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table,” Van Zandt joked after hearing Earle’s statement.
Trying to do justice to a legend’s songs is a tall order in and of itself, but Earle also butts heads with the fundamental dilemma of recording a covers album. While an artist should aim to make the song his or her own, they also have to be careful not to stray too far from the original; in doing the latter, he or she risks burying or all together losing the spark or quality that made the song so beautiful in the first place. In other words, there always looms the possibility of completely butchering a masterpiece. On Townes, the listener can sense Earle’s struggle to find the proper approach to each song. When he nails it, the songs seem as vibrant and vital as ever. And when he misses the mark, the listener can’t help but feel underwhelmed and anxious to skip ahead. There are several instances of both on Townes.
“Colorado Girl” is a song that Earle used to play in his live shows. For this project he relearned it in the original Open D tuning that Van Zandt used. As a result, the song keeps all the sweetness and longing of the original, with Earle’s voice and acoustic strumming adding his own sense of weariness and yearning to the recording. “Rake”, maybe Van Zandt’s finest song, is another instance in which Earle closely adheres to the bare bones arrangement of the original. Though Earle can’t conjure up the haunting and somnambulistic quality that Van Zandt could on a whim, he still delivers a chill down the listener’s spine with his faithfulness to lyrics as biting as, “And now the dark air is like fire on my skin/And even the moonlight is blinding.” “Lungs”, also a song Earle has been playing for years, is an entirely different animal from Van Zandt’s original. Earle delivers his plaintive and foreboding vocals in an unaccompanied rasp in the first verse, only to later be joined by Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave) on electric guitar for an all-out romp. Earle’s version of “Lungs” reminds me of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Even Bob Dylan admitted that Jimi had taken his song to a new level, and here Earle has similarly given new life to Van Zandt’s classic.
The main problem with Townes is that for every “Lungs” there is a track that neither breathes new life into the original nor offers a compelling faithful rendition. The songs that actually seem to fall flat for Earle are some of Van Zandt’s more popular songs like “Pancho and Lefty”, “No Place to Fall”, and “To Live is to Fly.” Part of the issue is Earle’s vocals. Van Zandt’s voice, at its best, was stark and delicate, whereas Earle’s voice is gruffer with a more lived-in feel to it. On several tracks, he tends to hang onto certain words for too long, which not only slows the songs and causes them to drag but also makes it sound as if he is falling behind the melody every few lines or so. There’s nothing terrible about these tracks, but given some of the best material folk music has to offer, listeners would expect a talent like Earle to be able to do something more with them. As it is, they seem lackluster and grow old rather quickly.
If you are going to purchase Townes, you should pick up the limited edition, two-disc set. The second disc contains eleven solo versions of the cover songs found on the album. To capture the spirit of Van Zandt’s solo performances, Earle chose to first record these songs with only vocals and guitar before adding other instrumentation. This solo disc is a terrific companion piece, which at times actually outshines the disc of completed versions. Perhaps, just a voice and guitar is how Van Zandt’s music is truly meant to be heard.
Townes was clearly a labor of love for Steve Earle, and even if his work didn’t result in a masterpiece, listeners still get several excellent tracks and added incentive to either discover or revisit Van Zandt’s originals. It’s true that Earle is better at doing his own thing, but you can’t begrudge a man for paying tribute to a hero and friend. One day someone will probably be making an album called “Steve” for the sake of posterity, or as Van Zandt might phrase it, “for the sake of the song.”