Steve Earle recalls the late great Townes Van Zandt
Steve Earle’s admiration for Townes Van Zandt is nearly as legendary as the two men themselves. Point one: A teenage Earle started following the iconic country singer-songwriter upon discovering him in Houston back in 1972. Point two: He named his first son after him, the emerging Justin Townes Earle who’s now commanding attention for his own potent honky tonk delivery and lyrical skills. Point three: He just released an entire album covering 15 Van Zandt songs, simply titled Townes. Recording the core vocals and guitar tracks live in his New York apartment last September, the gritty Grammy-winning Earle is now taking the musical tribute—and his memories of one of the most underappreciated and prolific poets—on the road, and he’ll be hitting The Rio at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 7. When he talks about Van Zandt, whose infamous life of alcohol and drug abuse ended on New Year’s Day of 1997 at the age of 52, Earle’s tone shifts restlessly between poignant awe of the man and his influence, to somber lament (and riled frustration) for the fame, health and success that his idol never obtained. Like Van Zandt, Earle rose in the growlin’ blues, country-rock songwriting ranks only to fall to his own substance abuse and eventual imprisonment in the early ’90s. Unlike Van Zandt, he made it out of the darkness—sobering up and singing again to reclaim himself, a family and his lauded career. Townes Van Zandt epitomized the struggling, self-destructive folk phenom that could never quite enjoy the brilliance he emanated, and now Steve Earle is giving his greatest mentor what he could never hold onto in life: the spotlight.
GOOD TIMES: You’re touring solo acoustic and paying homage to your hero. It’s like you’ve gone back to your earliest roots all around.
STEVE EARLE: Yes, absolutely. I come from coffeehouses and pub music first and foremost, that’s how I started. I was in my late twenties before I ever performed with a band. [Solo] was the way to do this tour because I basically recorded the record solo and added all the instruments later. I wanted it to be about the songs. I found out I was more Townes Van Zandt than I thought I was in the process of recording this.
Please retell the story of how Townes Van Zandt heckled you at your show when you first met him when you were 17.
I came downstairs for my second set and he was sitting there right in front of the stage. There were about six people there so he was kind of hard to ignore—it was hard enough that it was Townes. He didn’t make a noise while I was singing, but eventually he yelled, “Play the ‘Wabash Cannonball’!” I finally had to admit that I didn’t know the “Wabash Cannonball,” to which he replied, “Oh, you call yourself a folk singer and you don’t know the ‘Wabash Cannonball’!” Then I played [his song] “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” and he shut up.
Did he know how big a fan you were?
Oh yeah, I’d already been stalking him so he’d seen me around.
Speaking of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” you duet with your son Justin for that song. How was recording with him?
Well, you know, it was the usual pain in the ass it is to do anything with him. We’ve done that song for awhile, since he was about 16, so it made sense to do it. I cut a track when I did all the other stuff, but then Justin came in and said, “Oh, that’s too slow.” So I had to record it again to get it going fast enough for him. I told him that when he gets older he’ll be able to play it slower.
On Justin’s own song “Mama’s Eyes” he references his difficult relationship with you pretty harshly. What was your response when you heard it?
I responded to it but I think I’d rather keep it to myself. That’s a really fine line you gotta walk when you [write songs]. I mean, I don’t write everything I feel but I’ve written stuff over the years, when I was his age, and, yeah, I’ve hurt a lot of people’s feelings. I never write intentionally to hurt people’s feelings—with the possible exception of Dick Cheney—but it’s one of those things where you can’t sensor yourself. So it’s not fair for me to comment on it either way.
Van Zandt was a tragic figure. You’ve struggled with your own demons and you’ve had a re-emergence. It feels like this album/tour is your way of giving him a second chance too.
It’s not that Townes was a misunderstood genius. It’s Townes’ fault that Townes didn’t work. He shot himself in the foot every chance he got. He’s a huge part of who I am and that’s something I needed to reconnect to for my own reasons. I wish he could see the reaction to it; I think some people are getting it that didn’t get it before. He didn’t perform that well the last few years of his life. I saw him when he was a great solo performer, and this record is about me emulating that as closely as I can. These performances are based on my memory, my best recollection of what it was like when I saw Townes perform when I was 17 years old.
You’ve said of Van Zandt, “He knew he was talented … but he didn’t believe in himself a lot as a person.”
I think for Townes there was a part of him that didn’t think he deserved a lot. He grew up with a lot of money and he didn’t understand why he had so much that he didn’t earn while there were other people that didn’t have nothing through no fault of their own. He was a little too focused on that to be healthy. There’s a lot of things: he was an alcoholic—the worst I ever saw, and he had other mental health issues, and he was one of the best songwriters that ever lived. And all those things are totally separate issues. He wasn’t a better writer because he was fucked up, and he wasn’t fucked up because he was a better writer than other people. Those things are completely and totally unrelated as far as I’m concerned.
A lot of artists think hardship and addiction go hand in hand with creative genius.
They do and they’re wrong. It’s really dangerous. I never bought that for any length of time, except maybe when I first met Townes. But I even distanced myself from him at one point, and then eventually the disease got me too. But I can remember thinking that I was doing OK because I wasn’t as bad as Townes.
What got you through your own self-sabotage?
I’ve been clean for over 15 years now; I go to meetings and I call my sponsor. I don’t know why I survived long enough and why I suddenly woke up one day and wanted to live and was willing to do what other people suggested to me. Townes never even got close; he never even wanted to get sober. There’s no small amount of survivor’s guilt in this record.
What’s been the best part of this whole Townes project?
Just people’s reactions to it. The whole thing from the time I first sat in the chair. I just wish Townes could have seen it.
Steve Earle plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7 at The Rio, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30 at Streetlight Records and ticketweb.com. For more information, call 423-8209.