The NY Times recently did a huge story on Steve Earle’s worship of and friendship with the late Townes Van Zandt, who in recent years has been garnering reverence not only from the country world he came from but also the realm of indie-rock and “alternative” music. Earle just released Townes, a collection of his hero’s classic songs, and I reviewed it in last week’s Pasa Tiempo section of the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Steve Earle: Townes (New West Records)
by Adam Perry for the Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2009
By now most music geeks know that country bad-boy Steve Earle has released a collection of Townes Van Zandt songs, respectably pulling off an honest, endearing tribute to his late hero and mentor that in some ways was decades in the making. An earnest and appreciated (though not particularly amazing) singer-songwriter, Earle is less known for his own material than for being a serious advocate of social and political justice (and recovering junkie), but he’s also a deservedly-cherised performer of American music, and that comes through on Townes. Earle’s rendering of the tender “Marie” is gorgeous; “(Quicksilver Daydreams) of Maria” remains a timeless ballad falling somewhere between Hank Williams and Keats, and on such tunes Earle really can’t go wrong. The romantic tracks (notably “Colorado Girl”) come across the best, while Van Zandt’s uniquely unsettling tales of ramble and woe fall short with Earle – who has always been an outrider in both country and Southern rock – as their modern purveyor. Earle now performs for big bucks in such bourgeois venues as the money-drenched City Winery in New York, so hearing him sing lines like “the street’s just fine if you’re good and blind” seems somewhat unreal. In all, nothing here is as immediately intense as the experiential, bottomed-out horror of Van Zandt’s originals, or even as spellbinding as creative Van Zandt covers by alt-folkies like The Be Good Tanyas and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.” Townes is pleasing and touching enough, but you don’t get a sense of Earle singing what he’s seen so much as superbly memorializing his friend and father-figure.