A heartfelt tribute to the master storyteller.
Jon Lusk 2009-05-08
Townes van Zandt was a Texan singer/songwriter who died in 1997, largely as a result of long-term substance abuse. A cult artist and 'songwriter's songwriter', he never achieved much commercial success, but the body of work he left behind has ensured legendary status and a trail of covers and tributes by fellow artists, of which this rather lacklustre effort is the latest.
It's not as if Steve Earle hasn't earned the right to record a whole album of van Zandt's wonderful songs. After all, he's a recovering addict himself, and knew van Zandt from the early 1970s. In the course of his career, he's already recorded several of his songs, and shared stages and even a live album with him. The story goes that he occasionally deputised for van Zandt when his addictions meant he was unable to perform. Earle even named his son Justin Townes Earle after him, and wrote the tender, heartfelt Fort Worth Blues in his memory. So, this slightly idiosyncratic selection (What, no Tecumseh Valley or If I Needed You?) reflects their personal connection, rather than any attempt to present a greatest-hits-that-never-were.
No, the main problem is Earle's voice, an affectedly narcoleptic drawl that sucks much of the poetry out of van Zandt's words, and makes some lines only semi-audible. Like his role model Bob Dylan, Van Zandt wasn't blessed with a classic singing voice, but used it brilliantly. His understated speak-singing style, and tendency to not quite make the notes his own writing made him reach for somehow lent a poignancy to his extraordinary lyrics. And van Zandt was a master story-teller with no time for corny rhymes, so his words should be heard.
Townes isn't by any means a disaster. The bluegrass combo featured on White Freightliner Blues, Delta Momma Blues and Don't Take It Too Bad add zest and variety to a mostly downbeat oeuvre. There's a vibrant update of Loretta that does the original justice, with Earle's wife Alison Moorer contributing especially fine backing vocals. Where I Lead Me features a great, lacerated harmonica sound and Earle's sparky duet with his son on Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold is an unexpected treat.
However, the strings that blight Rake are an unwelcome reprise of the overcooked arrangements imposed on van Zandt's early recordings by his regular producer Jack Clement, when the artist was too out of it to care or protest. Most crucially, to open and close the album with such earthbound versions of Pancho and Lefty and To Live Is To Fly – two of van Zandt's finest songs – will hardly encourage further investigation of his work. Especially not if, like this listener, you find Earle's voice a challenge. The curious should seek out Poet: A Tribute To Townes van Zandt, the compilation The Very Best Of Townes Van Zandt: The Texan Troubadour or the late recording A Far Cry From Dead. And maybe Earle should write some more of his own material.