- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Steve Earle
New West Records

Townes Van Zandt is something of an acquired taste for people who aren’t songwriters by trade. Even by that fraternity’s standard for hard living, Mr. Van Zandt was known for pushing the boundaries of excess. Before his death from a heart attack at 52 in 1997, he gained notoriety for his periodic onstage collapses and for thumbing his nose at success.

But for fellow songwriters - including Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, all of whom recorded Mr.Van Zandt’s songs - his work was emotionally harrowing, daring and even revelatory.

Steve Earle came into Mr. Van Zandt’s life as an acolyte. The two had much in common. Both were songwriters with a country bent who were rejected by the Nashville, Tenn. establishment for their nonconformity, left-wing politics and bad boy lifestyles. Now Mr. Earle, whose own career was nearly consumed by a four-year drug binge, finds himself at 54, older than his mentor was when he died. This sad commemoration isn’t advertised as the occasion for “Townes,” Mr. Earle’s tribute album.

Yet it helps explain the elegiac grace of Mr. Earle’s performance of “Rake” (the ninth of 15 cuts on the new CD) or the plaintive, unembarrassed desperation that comes across on “No Place to Fall.” It’s as if Mr. Earle himself has, through the accumulation of hard-won experience, arrived at a place where he is a credible interpreter of Mr. Van Zandt’s work.

When Mr. Van Zandt sang, his words sounded completely thought out - as though he’d mulled and passed over other lyric schemes before arriving at a song for the ages. Mr. Earle brings that sense of inevitability and permanence to his own performances; especially on the final track, the shimmering and beautiful, “To Live Is to Fly.”

The lyrics mix an uncharacteristic optimism with crushing regret, and Mr. Earle hits just the right notes of gentleness and caution as he sings, “We all got holes to fill and them holes are all that’s real/ Some fall on you like a storm, sometimes you dig your own.”

“Townes” is available as a 15-track album, or with a bonus disc of 11 solo acoustic tracks. Mr. Earle originally cut 12 songs by himself. These were then layered with accompaniment, including a healthy dose of mandolin, fiddle and Dobro, which add richness and depth.

Some of the drum tracks, however, feel a little tacked on. But by and large the production retains the intimacy and vitality of a small undertaking.

Mr. Earle recorded the narrative gambling song “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” as a duet with his son, the songwriter Justin Townes Earle.

The son’s middle name is itself a testament to Mr. Earle’s devotion. In the liner notes he writes of the musicians who attached themselves to Mr. Van Zandt: “We were indeed a cult, in the strictest sense of the word, with Townes at its ever shifting center.”

Add “Townes” to the ever-expanding list of tributes, documentaries, books and reissues that are keeing the cult of Mr. Van Zandt vital and alive.

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