“We were witnesses to his genius and participants in his legend,” writes Steve Earle of Townes Van Zandt in the liner nights of his latest record, “which we helped to forge, repeating the personal accounts and the rumors alike.” A musician I know has a Townes story which he, in turn, passed on to me. This one takes place late in Van Zandt’s all-too-short life, and the itinerant singer-songwriter is backstage, talking to some aspiring troubadors. “If you want this,” he is quoted in the story as saying of a career in music, “you have to leave everything else behind: family, women, money. You can only have the music.” By this time, Van Zandt would have been married for 10 years or more, to a woman with whom he remained until his death; his son, William, had been born in 1983; in the money thing alone might the man who spent most of his life touring dives have had a leg to stand on.
So the story may be false, or Townes may have been talking nonsense. That isn’t the point of course – Van Zandt’s story has gone beyond much need of anything so dull as the truth. Earle’s new album is another contribution to this legened; his younger self new Van Zandt well, and the student went on to outstrip the master in terms of commercial success, but Van Zandt’s humane and unblinking approach has always informed his songwriting. To an extent, it’s a surprise Earle has taken so long about recording an album of Townes’s songs; on the other hand, you wonder what the point is. Earle has always been a better songwriter than a performer, and it’s a shame this is not an original collection, particularly after the disappointing Washington Square Serenade.
Still, in many ways the LP sounds better than anything Earle has done since his collaborate with the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain: his vocals are versatile, ragged and touching, there’s some fine playing from the guest musicians, and the production is delicately clever. Most of what come closest to Van Zandt’s hits are here – ‘Pancho and Lefty’, ‘To Live Is To Fly’, and ‘No Place To Fall’. Other highlights include a rollicking ‘White Freightliner Blues’, a ‘Rake’ which is satisfyingly grimy, and a duet with Earle’s son, Justin, on ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’. The album as a whole feels a little too mid-tempo, but if all these faithful arrangements sort of drift pass they succeed through this in achieving an elegiac air. Still, it’s hard not to see Townes as a simply decent record and a pleasant listen rather than anything more substantial, and given the talent of both the songwriter and his interpreter that’s a bit of a shame. Townes is in short a well executed record not without strong moments, but ultimately it’s perhaps just a little too reverential.