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The National, in Richmond, is a decorous little theater with a semiformal air. But on Tuesday night, when Steve Earle played a set of mostly Townes Van Zandt covers from his new tribute album, peppered with anecdotes from his 25-year friendship with its eponymous hero, the venue assumed the close familiarity of a living room.

Earle’s speaking voice—deliberate, avuncular, devoid of pretense—sounds as though it was engineered for the specific purpose of perpetuating folk legends. When he says he got the idea for the tribute album when one night from his tour bus he saw Van Zandt’s ghost riding his old horse Amigo through the Colorado fog, you take him at his word. At Tuesday night’s show in Richmond, Earle deployed folk’s discursive oral tradition in the service of contextualizing Townes.

Earle had been “stalking” Van Zandt for awhile before they officially met, he explained, during a gig Earle was playing at a Texas dive in 1972. Townes, drunk, was loudly demanding that he play the folk standard “Wabash Cannonball,” a standard the 17-year-old Earle did not know. “He said, you call yerself a country singer and you don’t know Wabash cannonball?” At a loss, and upset at being upbraided by his unknowing hero, Earle launched into a Van Zandt song called “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” a breathless gambling allegory punctuated with the final line,

This is what this story’s told
You feel like Mudd, you’ll end up Gold
You feel like lost, you’ll end up found
So amigo, lay them raises down.

Earle and Van Zandt each played both Mudd and Gold over the course of their lives and careers, imbuing their relationship with the sort of solidarity and candor that made possible the sort of confrontation they had at Earle’s house in the 1980s, when Earle was taking a beating from a heroin habit.

“I had a home at the time,” said Earle. “But there weren’t anything in it. I pull up into my driveway one day and there’s Townes’s truck, and I’m like ‘Oh, boy.’ I knew I was in trouble, getting a lecture on temperance from Townes Van Zandt. He goes, ‘You look like shit.’ I go, ‘I know.’ He says, ‘How’s yer arm?’ I look down and say, ‘Not too good’ … Townes takes out his guitar and says, ‘I wanna play you something I wrote a few days ago.’”

Earle then made like Townes did then and began picking a dark tune called “Marie,” which chronicles the deeply unromantic plight of a drifter-musician couple clawing for dignity in a world that wants to distance itself from them as much as they want to distance themselves from it.

Introducing the songs with these personal anecdotes recruited us into the cradle of Earle’s memory and allowed us to all but shake hands with Townes—to touch his empathy (“Townes was notorious for bringing homeless people home .. then when he didn’t have a home, he brought them home to other people’s homes”), his mischievousness, and his sadness. It made us feel as though we had more at stake in each song, making certain lyrics—such as this one from “To Live is to Fly”—to land a little deeper in the chest:

Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is too much to bear
Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep’s the getting there

It was a night for poignant, lyrics-driven folk, as Greenbelt native Joe Pug set off Earle’s weary wisdom with the angsty passion of his opening set. I had been deeply intrigued by Pug since hearing his debut EP a few weeks ago, and I spent some time with him after his set; details in tomorrow’s post.