In the last two decades, Steve Earle has emerged as a controversial musical hybrid of the protest singer Woody Guthrie and an overhauled version of Jennings-Kristofferson outlaw country. Nashville wouldn’t have him, so he set out on his own (after falling into heroin, then prison), dubbing himself a “hardcore troubadour”, and founding his own indie label E-Squared, as well as recording more recently on indie label New West. A cult music figure like Earle always has inspirations, and for most of his life the self-destructively gifted poet-singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was the inspiration. Twelve years after Van Zandt’s unexpected death at the age of 52, Earle has made an important tribute album to his friend.
At age 18, Earle met Van Zandt in Houston, where the former had moved after leaving home at age 16. Van Zandt was thereafter Earle’s greatest inspiration. Throughout his life, Earle has been loyal to Van Zandt in more than just a musical sense. Earle’s own career and personal life mirrors Van Zandt’s in some key ways, even if they have obvious differences.
Van Zandt was/is celebrated by music critics and a hardcore but small following. Praised as an extremely talented songwriter, Van Zandt’s songs never became hits except in the hands of others, the most famous of which was Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s 1983 #1 cover of “Pancho and Lefty”. Earle started in Nashville writing hits for singers like Dea and Clark and Carl Perkins, but did not enjoy the same kind of success on his own. While the country establishment gave Earle limited attention in the mid-’80s as a new traditionalist when he broke into its Top 40 with “Hillbilly Highway”, his rock guitar elements ultimately made him too idiosyncratic for their business constraints on creativity (it was the album rock chart where 1988’s Copperhead Road broke the Top 10).
Both men struggled with substance abuse. Van Zandt admitted he didn’t expect to live to a ripe age, and Earle had once similarly said he thought he’d be dead by 40. However, 54-year-old Earle has been clean for over 13 years now and claims to be in a committed marriage with singer Allison Moorer since 2004. They are two different men, albeit with a common background and a powerfully enduring friendship, which Earle does his best to honor in this album.
If the themes of their lives bear many resemblances, Earle’s vocal style and clearly more experimental and rock (and political) tones differ greatly from Van Zandt’s more consistent folk-country sound and smoother vocals. Earle in no way tries to mimic Van Zandt in sound on this album. Almost every distinct sound Earle has produced over the last two decades finds its way into the songs of this album (save for the reggae and island experiments in The Revolution Starts Now), namely bluegrass, country folk and stomp, and hard rock.
Earle delivers a golden-gravel-voiced, slightly Eastern guitar-tinged (a la his plucking on “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack) rendition of “Lungs”, which kicks into electrified rock toward the close, as Earle has regularly done on recent albums. “Pancho and Lefty” is similarly well-stamped with the Earle signature, where maracas and vaguely Eastern guitar twangs accompany Earle’s signature vocal grit. “Where I Lead Me” provides a Bo Diddley rhythm with a blues harmonica. Other arrangements sound closer to 1999’s The Mountain, an impressive bluegrass album Earle recorded with the Del McCoury band. “White Freightliner Blues” and “Delta Momma Blues” are examples of further successful bluegrass-influenced tracks.
One of the consistent strong suits of Earle’s albums has been the duets and backing vocals, and this album is no different, with enriching guest appearances by Tom Morello, his wife Allison Moorer and — a first — his son Justin Townes Earle on the top-rate track “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”.
One of the most curious aspects of the tribute genre is obviously the ultimate selections from a larger corpus. Why these songs? They are a fitting combination of the love-loneliness-yearning themes Earle himself has treated and that Van Zandt made his bread and butter, mixed with some of Earle’s own social realist and political penchants. But more than anything else, the thematic assemblage that emerges from the whole forms a commentary that is like a lonesome cowboy song on a cold prairie night: yearning for warmth, restlessly instrospective, regretful and afraid (even afraid of being regretful), wondering if love might be the answer to being on the verge of rejecting life altogether.
In “Poncho and Lefty”, we’re asked to pray for the lone outlaws, one dead, the other hardly livin’ the good life, “growin’ old” in a “cheap hotel” in Cleveland. We don’t know if the tragedy is the fate of “being born to run” or of making the choice to reject the herd. Either way, the end is not pretty. “White Freightliner Blues” is also about rambling and loss: “Well, it’s bad news from Houston / Half my friends are dying / Ah, Lord, I’m gonna ramble / Till I get back to where I came”.
In addition, the real and imaginary women of Van Zandt’s life appear prominently in the album. Earle’s gravel-coated storytelling shines on songs like “Loretta”, a more countrified rendition with a fiddle and a rhythm section that is a kind of 1-2 stomp clamp with a catchy Celtic tinge. Another song with a woman’s name for a title, “Marie”, is a blues-folk ballad about a desperate, good-intentioned man in a welfare line thinking about his woman, who is pregnant and needs a winter coat, and who eventually dies, the unborn baby in the womb. It’s a kind of musical equivalent to Ken Loach social realism, but perhaps more sympathetic. Songs like “Colorado Girl” speak to the romantic yearning for the ONE, in this case perhaps in Colorado.
Both Van Zandt and Earle’s lives are marked by a restlessness in love, a looking ever yonder for the ideal they can’t seem to realize in the here and now (or at least in the there and then, given Earle’s marriage). On “Don’t Take It Too Bad”, Earle/Townes counsels an unknown “babe” not to spend too much time searching for answers, lest the pondering and wonder be tragically exchanged for action and experience:
And we just can’t have that, girl
‘Cause it’s a sad, lonesome, cold world
And a man need a woman just to stand by his side
And whisper sweet words in his ears about daydreams
And roses and playthings
And the sweetness of springtime
And the sound of the rain
Van Zandt lived on the edge, and he fell off it and got back up many times before finally taking a mortal fall. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t pay attention — to the roses, the springtime, the rain’s sound; to the loneliness and emptiness; and to human comfort, in lovers and friends. Wherever Van Zandt is today, Earle’s friendship remains steadfast.