First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2010, Volume 17, #2
Written by John Metzger
Tue February 9, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Steve Earle has a long history of doing things his way. Although his strong-willed approach certainly has its limitations, he fortunately has always been aware of them. As a result, whenever he seems to fall into a predictable pattern, Earle upends his strategy and tries something new. After pushing his political agenda as far as possible via a series of angry tirades — Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now — Earle altered his perspective by burying the bluntness of his post-9/11 commentaries inside Washington Square Serenade’s personalized love letter to the life he since has built in his adopted hometown. The outing undeniably was a transitional affair, and in its wake comes Townes, a collection that clearly is all about Earle’s rediscovery of his roots.
Perhaps the only thing that has ever seemed inevitable about Earle’s career is that at some point he would pay homage to Townes Van Zandt. When he was 16, Earle sought out and quickly befriended the legendary songwriter. Later, he not only dedicated his 1997 outing El Corazon to the late Texas troubadour, but he also named his son "Justin Townes" to honor Van Zandt’s memory. In other words, the lone surprise about the emergence of Earle’s latest endeavor is that it took this long to come to fruition.
Of course, it never is an easy task to pay homage to one’s heroes. The common misstep that artists tend to make is to hold their influences’ works so closely to their hearts that they fail to find a way of bringing a fresh perspective to the proceedings. This may be the reason why Earle didn’t jump into this project at an earlier date, and his decision to wait until now proves to have been quite wise, too. With age and maturity, Earle has developed the self-confidence to trust his instincts, and this allows him to determine when he should adhere to Van Zandt’s blueprints and when he should make a few modifications that further broaden his outlook.
Throughout Townes, Earle oscillates among the three distinctly different platforms that he devised for showcasing Van Zandt’s compositions. On tracks like Where I Lead Me and Lungs, Earle adorns his arrangements with scruffy beats and distorted vocals, essentially dragging the music into the future. Tom Morello joins him on the latter cut, too, casting an ominous shadow across the surface of the music’s metallic clatter. Elsewhere, Earle assembles a bluegrass band to enliven tunes like White Freightliner Blues, Loretta, and Don’t Take It Too Bad. The results are effortless, though sometimes his supporting cast could use a jolt of personality to keep the material from feeling overly comfortable and polite.
Strangely enough, although it runs contrary to any conventional wisdom about how a successful tribute set should be assembled, the places where Townes fares best are precisely those moments when Earle stays truest to Van Zandt’s intent. There is no doubt that Earle has been singing these songs for most of his life. Yet, when he delivers tunes like Pancho and Lefty, Marie, and Rake, he shows just how eerily he can channel Van Zandt’s spirit. It is as unsettling as it is uncanny. The rest of Townes is wonderfully conceived, but it’s here that Earle actually succeeds in bringing the ghostly presence of his old pal back to life in a very intimate way. ˝
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Contemporary Folk Album
Of Further Interest...
Townes is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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