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Country musician Steve Earle once famously pronounced Townes Van Zandt “the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” So how come the only people who ever give Townes his propers are his contemporaries and the odd independent filmmaker? Maybe because even when started started writing iconic country-folk standards, he stayed holed up in a tin-roofed shack outside Houston, planting flowers and playing to dive crowds. Maybe because his songs usually only became famous after being covered by other, more entrepreneurial country stars. Or maybe because his ambling melodies have been ground to grains beneath the tire treads of the endless Chevy commercial that is modern country music.
Earle has not forgotten Townes, though; and he’s doing his best to make sure the rest of us don’t either. His latest LP, Townes, is a 15-song memorial to his mentor. The album revisits some of Townes’ most characteristic tunes—including “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” which was the first Van Zandt song Earle ever played (he did it the night they first officially met, to stop Townes from heckling him), and “To Live is to Fly,” enduring ballad that doubles as the late singer’s epitaph.
The album’s most poignant tribute comes at the beginning, with “Pancho and Lefty.” “Pancho and Lefty” is a heartbreaking song about a pariah who sets out with his faithful sidekick in pursuit of a vagabond dream. Pancho is a mischievous but ultimately good-natured bandito, who “wears his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel.” The federales pity him and indulge him his fantasy, until Pancho is finally killed on the high sands of Mexico—”Nobody heard his dying words, that’s just the way it goes”—and Lefty is forced to flee to the unromantic bosom of Ohio. For Van Zandt, the manic-depressive heir to an oil fortune who underwent shock treatment as a young man and sought to escape his demons by becoming a rambler, the song has definite strains of autobiography. The sadness of the song is deeply personal. Ironically, “Pancho and Lefty” became popular only after Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered it in the ’80s.
With the exception of “Lungs“—a diabolical little tune he spices up with a voice filter, digital drums, and what sounds like turntable-scratching—Earle declines to stray far from Van Zandt’s original arrangements. The most distinct difference, aside from the clearer sound and the occasional variation on the finger-picking, is Earle’s voice. Where Townes possessed an eminently mild timbre, Earle’s instrument is more nasal, occasionally gravelly, and tends to grip each word with his more-pronounced drawl as if wringing sweat from a handkerchief.
By comparison, this affect might seem indulgent. But it is plainly love, not vanity, that is the driving force behind this album. Earle, 11 years Townes’ junior, idolized the man, even giving his son, Justin, “Townes” for a middle name. Covers are often about reinventing a song—celebrating new styles by bending old forms. Townes, on the other hand, is not so much a seizure of inheritance as a loving genuflection at the headstone of a master. It is Lefty promising Pancho that his last words will be heard, after all.