Album Review : Steve Earle’s “Townes”

Steve Earle Townes Van ZandtThe Hardcore Troubadour, Steve Earle, is back with the follow up to his 2007 Grammy award winning Washington Square Serenade, but this time Earle takes on fifteen cuts from his hero, Townes Van Zandt. Simply entitled, Townes, the album is an array of songs most meaningful to Earle of the cult singer-songwriter.

Earle once said of Van Zandt: “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.” So it would be a mistake to think that this is not one of the most intimate records of Earle’s career. Earle met Van Zandt while performing in Houston, TX as a young and hungry songwriter in 1972. The two jostled with banter back and worth from the audience to the stage where Earle was performing until Earle had the last words singing, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”, a complex and tricky song from the Van Zandt catalog. The two quickly become close friends, with Earle even naming his son, Justin Townes Earle, after Van Zandt.

As for the album itself, Townes is not simply a duplication or cover of Van Zandt songs, but more of rekindling of songs from an apprentice to a mentor. Earle’s voice is solidly rough whiskey and smoke filled in comparison to Van Zandt’s quaint and delicate voice, so Earl’s renditions are his own. Most of the albums tracks were lifetime favorites that Earle has played for years, but as well he learned a few new tracks just for the recording.

Steve Earle TownesThe album opens with, “Poncho and Lefty”, a Townes song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris and more famously by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard. Earle’s interpretation is a ghostly haunting narrative of outlaws on the run, friendship and betrayal. “Lungs”, which features Tom Morello on guitar, has a refreshingly dark tone of disappointment, and “Loretta”, with backing vocals from Alison Moorer (Earle’s wife), is a bright inspiration of love.

The highlight of the record is a duet, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”, with Earle’s son Justin. Being able to hear two generations of the Earle family dueling on this song is simply astounding. Other favorites on the album include; “(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria”, “Colorado”, and “White Freightliner Blues”. The record all-in-all is some of Earle’s better work, but not his best. He gives a heartfelt tribute to a man and his music that has been unappreciated for years. It’s a sure thing for any Steve Earle or Townes Van Zandt fan. You won’t be disappointed.


Steve Earle’s Townes


Steve Earle’s Townes on Vinyl (LP)

Written by savingcountrymusic.com contributor Cliff England.