Steve Earle: channeling Townes Van Zandt 

Steve Earle first heard Townes Van Zandt as a teenage high school dropout in Texas, then met him for the first time in 1972 when Van Zandt heckled Earle during a performance at The Old Quarter in Houston.

Van Zandt, who was about a decade older than Earle, befriended and schooled the youngster. The pair remained friends until Van Zandt's death in 1997 at age 52.

Earle wrote "Fort Worth Blues" on the night Van Zandt died and has championed his mentor's music for decades.

But it took until 2009 for Earle to record a collection of Van Zandt's songs, released this year as Townes.

"I've talked about doing it for a long time and then somebody would fly an airplane into a tall building or the president of the United States would do something stupid and I'd find a record," Earle said. "Because I needed to finish the novel, this became a gift from Townes."

Earle has been working off and on for years on I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, a novel based in 1963 about a heroin-addicted dentist who was with Hank Williams when he died a decade earlier. To finish the book, he needed to make writing it his full-time job.

So he recorded the tracks for Townes, sent the record to his label, New West, and holed up to complete the novel.

Making Townes was a more profound experience than Earle had figured.

First, he had to narrow down the song selection. Just before he started to record, he still had 26 Van Zandt songs on his list (and Earle had already recorded four Van Zandt songs earlier in his career).

Guy Clark, Earle's other mentor and a Van Zandt running buddy, let Earle cross one song off his list and do another when he recorded "If I Needed You." That allowed Earle to record the very similar "No Place to Fall."

For the basic tracks, Earle grabbed a guitar and sang in his Greenwich Village apartment.

"I basically had the acoustic, except for the four bluegrass songs. I'd close my eyes and do them the way I remembered Townes doing them," he said. "The rest of the stuff that I put on there is record making."

The rest of the stuff includes vocals from his wife, Allison Moorer, and son, Justin Townes Earle, who, of course, is named after Van Zandt. It also includes the guitar of Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and the production of Dust Brother John King on the terrifying "Lungs."

"The experience of doing the music was more powerful than I thought it would be," Earle said. "It may be the best record I've done. It hurts the singer/songwriter in me, no question about that. But they are some of the best songs ever written. So I've got that going for me."

The record opens with "Pancho & Lefty," by far Van Zandt's most famous song. It has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who had a No. 1 country hit with it in 1972.

But it also includes some more obscure Van Zandt songs that Earle brings fully to life. Earle is trying to capture the energy of a younger Van Zandt, before decades of alcoholism and drug abuse had taken its toll.

"He was a great solo performer in the '70s when I met him," Earle said. "He did most of his touring in the '90s and his skills were somewhat diminished by then. He was still Townes Van Zandt, but he was an alcoholic and that hurt him."

Van Zandt's addictions and crash-and-burn lifestyle have endeared him to those who, in Earle's words, "put their copy of [the Velvet Underground's] White Heat/White Light at the front of their record collections to show how intense they are."

Idolizing Van Zandt for his excesses is missing the point, Earle said.

"I'm glad for anybody who knows about Townes, no matter how," he said. "But I don't think that [excess] has anything to do with anything. Those are two separate phenomena. He was an alcoholic and an addict and he was a great guitarist and musician."

Earle talked about Townes earlier this year during a Los Angeles stop on a promotional tour of record stores. He recalled doing just one in-store in the previous 20 years. But with the downturn in the record business and the rapid disappearance of independent record stores, he played seven in a week, down the West Coast to Denver, then Austin, Texas.

"These are the last of the real record stores," he said. "I download like everybody, but I still like record stores. There's something about them that can't be replaced. I think it's good to get a record off playing them and it's supporting real record stores."

Always outspoken, Earle said the recession is likely to get worse before it gets better. But he had little criticism of President Barack Obama.

"Obama hasn't made me regret voting for him for one second," Earle said.

That said, Earle did have one serious disagreement with Obama, not surprisingly on the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

"I don't agree with him on Afghanistan," he said. "Afghanistan brought the British Empire to its knees. It brought the Soviet Union down. It stopped Alexander [The Great]. What are we thinking that we're going to do that will change that? I just hope too many kids don't get killed before we figure that out."

In addition to Townes and the novel in the works, Earle is preparing for his big screen debut. After getting good notices playing a recovered addict in HBO's The Wire he was cast in Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass, which was filmed last year in Shreveport, La. It is now in post-production and is slated for release late this year or in early 2010.

"I like the acting things, the insurance is better," Earle said. "I'm a drug dealer; it's the opposite of my character on The Wire. It actually requires some acting."

Earle's solo tour behind Townes will run through at least early September, with more dates expected to be announced.

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