Steve Earle famously once called Townes Van Zandt “the best songwriter in the whole world,” then added, “I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” The man who named his eldest son Justin Townes Earle never got that chance, but latest album Townes makes nearly as strong a statement about Earle’s hero’s legacy.
It was never so much a matter of if, as when Earle would record an album covering Van Zandt, the late, great, country-folk Texas troubadour; now that Earle has outlived his former mentor (Earle is 54; Van Zandt died at 52 in 1997), he has lovingly worked up this 15-track tribute.
Unsurprisingly, the songs are expertly chosen, blending ballads (“No Place to Fall,” “To Live Is to Fly”) with barroom stomps (“White Freightliner Blues,” “Loretta”), undeniable classics (“Pancho and Lefty,” “Rake”) with deeper, but no less strongly composed, cuts (“Marie,” “(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria”)—nearly all of it culled from Van Zandt’s late-’60s/early ’70s peak period. Earle’s modern-yet-dusty renditions pay faithful respect to the originals, with his gritty voice offering a tougher take on Van Zandt’s storytelling lyrics.
Townes comes recommended, but be prepared to leave the disc behind almost as fast as you finish listening to it. Van Zandt’s stunning songwriting compels further investigation, and should have much of Earle’s fanbase seeking out more material directly from the man at Townes’ center. Which, no doubt, is exactly what Earle hoped for when he recorded it.