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Being Townes

Steve Earle, Hero Worship, and the Cult of the Texas troubadour.
by Published on

“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.” —Steve Earle

If that quote’s not the very portrait of abject fanboydom, nothing is. And the working definition of fanboy (put down your dictionaries; I’m making this up as I go along) is that the boy in question (and yes, for some reason it’s always a boy) doesn’t just admire the object of his infatuation—he wants to be the object of his infatuation.

Steve Earle, now 54, seems to have begun in his teens wanting to be Townes Van Zandt. That’s when Earle dropped out of high school and moved to Houston, where Van Zandt was making his bones in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Since then, Earle has indulged and survived periodic heroin addictions, like Van Zandt. He’s gotten married more often than the average man (seven times, so far), as did Van Zandt, with three. Earle had a boy and named him Justin Townes; Van Zandt named his own boy John Townes II, after himself. Earle gave the famous quote taunting Dylan-worshippers and sang Van Zandt’s songs and recorded an album with him (and Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café). And Earle has compiled a body of work comprising a bunch of great songs, though perhaps none quite as great as Van Zandt’s greatest.

In 2001, Earle covered one of those songs, Townes’ “Two Girls,” for the Van Zandt tribute record Poet. Earle has a vocal mode in which he sounds like the worst ham in the world—like he’s aping Steve Earle aping Tom Waits. That’s bad Steve Earle, and he’s intolerable in that mode, if you ask me. That’s the tone he brings to “Two Girls,” the album’s last track. And damned if Earle doesn’t bring the same hammy hand to the first track of his own new record, Townes, which is comprised of nothing but Van Zandt songs. (The only words on the cover are “Steve Earle” and “Townes,” with the image of a molting moth between them; it’s kind of creepy if you think about it too hard.)

That first track, less necessary than perhaps anything ever recorded, is “Pancho and Lefty.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard proved that slippery song uncoverable in 1983. (Delbert McClinton doesn’t do any better on Poet, but he at least sounds like he’s having a good time trying.)

If you’ve listened to much Steve Earle, the twang-overkill isn’t surprising. It’s just bad Steve Earle. What is surprising, given Earle’s tendency toward vocal exaggeration and his unbounded admiration for the material, is that the rest of Townes is not just good Steve Earle, but get-out-of-the-way great Steve Earle. In combo with Van Zandt’s tunes, the effect is that of a biofeedback loop of self-amplified brilliance. Earle may not have written these songs, but he learned how to inhabit them just as fast as he could.

There’s a story that gets told, most recently in the 2005 documentary Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, about Van Zandt going to college in Colorado, where he tended to hole up in his room drinking wine and listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins records. There was a party one night, and Van Zandt was sitting on a balcony railing a few floors up when he got to considering the edge between balance and free-fall. To find the line, he later told an interviewer, he knew he’d have to cross it and fall. So he did, landing flat on his back and unhurt. In one published version, he didn’t even spill his drink.

It’s my favorite of the Townes stories, even if it’s at least a little apocryphal, as seems likely, because it explains the fanboydom. “Where I lead me, I will follow,” Van Zandt sang. You had to follow Townes, even if you were Townes, because Townes was the guy who would always go a little further out. He went out there for the sake of the songs, and he brought plenty back.

In Be Here to Love Me, he’s recorded saying of the singer-songwriting life: “There was one point when I realized, man, I could really do this. But it takes blowing everything off. It takes blowing family off, money, security, happiness, friends—blow it off. Get a guitar and go.”

That was the thing about Townes Van Zandt, the thing that made him an inevitable role model, despite having had perhaps the worst taste in shirts (think patterned polyester) in the history of the music business. His code was about purity of mission, and to hear just about anyone tell it, he lived it.

It wasn’t just Steve Earle who aspired to that standard. It was that most terrible of artistic appendages: a cult audience. Common usage to the contrary, artistic cults tend to have less to do with the size of the artist’s audience than with their fervor.

Townes Van Zandt generates fervor. He connected with me so directly and so powerfully that his songs have become, for better or worse, a soundtrack to substantial chunks of my own biography.

I learned to play pool at the Waugh Drive Pool Hall in Houston, where I reliably cued up Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Turnstyled, Junkpiled.” Townes, I learned later, had played pool there on Waugh Drive. His friend Blaze Foley had painted the pool ball mural outside.

(Asked about Foley, for whom Van Zandt later wrote “Blaze’s Blues,” Steve Earle told Houston Chronicle writer Andrew Dansby, “Blaze Foley wrote some good songs, but I don’t get the mystique at all. I know he and Townes were close, but they weren’t the same. There’s just no comparison.” Well, we can’t all be little Townes Van Zandts, after all.)

I interviewed Van Zandt over the phone from his home in Tennessee for almost two hours, and I saw one of his last shows, at Rockefeller’s in Houston. Afterward, backstage, my girlfriend introduced herself and told Townes, “You used to date my mother.” When she clarified that she was in no way implying paternity, he looked up sloshily from where he sat and said to her chest, “If you keep leaning over me like that, I’m going to grab you.”

I wooed my ex-wife playing “No Place to Fall” to her at a Bolivar Peninsula beach house, and I couldn’t help but melodramatically invoke “Our Mother the Mountain” when I realized I was headed for divorce. I learned how to play “Pancho and Lefty” living briefly outside of Terlingua and named my dogs Pancho and Lady, which is only half embarrassing. I had just piggybacked a freight train from Alpine to Houston when the news arrived that Van Zandt had died, on New Year’s Day 1997, at age 52. I ended up writing one of many remembrances for the weekly paper. Years later, I accompanied a friend on guitar while he sang Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” to his beautiful new bride.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about this relationship I have with Townes Van Zandt’s music. I think it’s pretty much in line with a lot of people’s relationships with his music—Steve Earle’s more than most.

Earle may be a slavish Van Zandt fanboy—and his liner notes on Townes confirm it with touching self-awareness—but he rarely makes the rookie mistake of reverence. He turns “White Freightliner Blues” into a rumbling bluegrass juggernaut. He gives “Where I Lead Me” a Bo Diddley backbeat that was only implied in the original. “Brand New Companion” gets the walking bass line it’s always begged for. Earle loads up “Lungs” with a bunch of studio sturm und clatter that recalls Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ recent cover of Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” more than anything Townes himself ever recorded. That’s no complaint. The songs are strong scaffolding, and they hold up just fine. For a fan, and maybe even more so for the uninitiated, it’s nice to have the option of hearing Townes without Townes around. So many of his original recordings are stripped so bare, so immediate and unadorned, that they’re painful.

If Earle isn’t trying to sound like Van Zandt, he does a fine job capturing the spirit. He gets the goofiness of “Delta Momma Blues” and the brutal pathos of “Marie,” the sweetness of “Don’t Take It Too Bad” and the bravado of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” the Faerie Queene stylings of “(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria,” and the melancholia of “To Live is to Fly.”

But no matter how good these covers are—and they’re awfully good—they’ll likely remain footnotes to Van Zandt’s original body of work, if not to Earle’s own. These songs may have taught the younger man how to live, and led a lot of other fans to varying degrees of emulation, but Townes himself pretty much died for them. That’s why, in the wandering world of cult Texas songwriters, Townes Van Zandt is still a saint among disciples.

New West Records released Townes in May. Earle plays live at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre (June 18), Austin’s Paramount Theatre (June 19), the New Braunfels Whitewater Festival (June 20), and Dallas’ Lakewood Theater (June 21).

Brad Tyer is the Observer's managing editor.