I should know more about Townes Van Zandt than I do. I know more than many; being a record geek and living in Texas, I’ve picked up some Townes knowledge by osmosis. But I don’t own any Townes Van Zandt albums and am far from an expert. So my approach to Townes, Steve Earle’s new album of Townes Van Zandt covers, is that of a Steve Earle fan only. In most cases, I cannot tell you how these versions stack up to the originals, but I like to think I have a sense of where Townes fits in to the Steve Earle catalog.
Earle’s last two studio albums, The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade contained something previously almost unknown in the Earle discography–filler. Whether out of laziness or Earle’s songwriting well finally starting to dry after a two-decade run, neither album approached the consistency that’s been a hallmark of nearly every album he’s put out since his debut on 1986’s classic Guitar Town.
Townes does not have filler. Of course, the reason for this is that Earle had a career’s worth of songs from a great songwriter to choose from. But that’s also Townes‘ chief weakness. Covers albums are tough to pull off, and a covers album as tightly focused as this even more so. Certainly, there is no one more qualified than Steve Earle to attempt a Townes Van Zandt cover album in terms of résumé (Van Zandt was Earle’s mentor), but, even still, Earle can’t quite pull all of the strings together to make Townes an unqualified success as an album, rather than just a collection of great songs.
But there’s nothing wrong with a collection of great songs, and even if Townes doesn’t join the ranks of Earle’s greatest albums, it is well worth several listens. Earle begins by getting two great but obligatory songs, “Pancho and Lefty” and “White Freight Liner Blues,” out of the way in a manner that tells the listener that obligatory they may be, but he’s not just trying to get them out of the way. He then takes us deeper into Van Zandt’s world, which is often dark (“Marie”) with occasional glimpses of sunlight (“Delta Momma Blues”) and weirdness (an excellent “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” sung with his son Justin Townes Earle).
In a move that may surprise some, Townes ends on an optimistic note with “To Live is to Fly,” Earle reminding us that all life is to be celebrated while celebrating the life of Townes Van Zandt in particular. Townes, while not perfect, is a fine tribute to that life.
(Townes is also available in a deluxe limited edition that includes a bonus CD containing eleven of the fifteen songs in guitar-and-vocal-only renditions. I have not heard this version.)
Steve Earle – “Pancho and Lefty”
Steve Earle – “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”