Steve Earle

Townes (New West)

Texas Platters

Steve Earle

Townes (New West)

Four months after Townes Van Zandt's death on New Year's Day 1997, Steve Earle retreated to Galway, Ireland, site of one of Van Zandt's final shows. Just more than two years clean and out of prison and helplessly watching his teenaged son, Justin Townes Earle, tread down the same disastrous path, Earle sat by the moonlit bay waves and penned "Ft. Worth Blues" for his late, reluctant mentor and friend: "They'd shut down all the honky tonks tonight/And say a prayer or two/If they only knew." As contentious as their relationship was, no artist understands Van Zandt's songs as instinctively and viscerally as Earle, the interwoven poetry and pain, love and loneliness. Townes is unparalleled in its versions of Van Zandt's songs, Earle bringing all the emotional complexity of their association to bear in tones of both joy and regret. Beginning eerily apropos with "Pancho and Lefty," Earle's voice is drought drawn, scarred with the dust of surviving. "No Place to Fall," "Rake," and the bluesy "Brand New Companion" follow suit, as harrowing as the originals but cut with Earle's distinctive grit. Yet the album is in celebration as much as in memoriam, with "Colorado Girl," "(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria," and "To Live Is to Fly" beautifully rendered, while "White Freightliner Blues" is given a bluegrass breakdown, and "Lungs" bruises behind Tom Morello's electric guitar. Most telling is the palpable history that infuses these songs for Earle, such as "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," with which he famously silenced a heckling Van Zandt at the Old Quarter when he was 17. As Earle delivers the song in blistering verses traded with his son, there's continuum and reconciliation, revealing in ways beyond mere tribute. Van Zandt needs your prayers, it's true, but save a few for Steve Earle, too. (Steve Earle holds services at the Paramount Theatre, June 19, solo acoustic.)

****

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