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A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt

Steve Earle honors his muse and mentor

Jul. 22, 2009
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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also can be the deadliest.

Rampant substance abuse finally caught up with Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt on New Year's Day, 1997, when the accumulation of drugs and drinks ended his life at age 52. Musician Steve Earle, long considered Van Zandt's leading acolyte, dodged that bullet, kicking his own heroin habit while jailed in the mid-1990s.

Earle, 54, has been back for a while, playing better and earning Grammy Awards for The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade. However, Van Zandt's influence still permeates the guitarist's music, culminating in Earle's recently released CD Townes, recorded in homage to Earle's mentor and containing 15 Van Zandt songs that have personal meaning to the guitarist. Along with performing his own work, Earle plans to channel the late Texas songwriter, who early in his life was being groomed to be governor of Texas, at his July 29 date at the Pabst Theater.

"My show begins and ends with Townes, with a little more Townes in the middle," Earle says. "I found out a few things putting the show and the CD together. I found out I was more like Townes than I thought."

Van Zandt emerged as a cult legend of the Texas music scene in the late 1960s, and Earle wasn't far behind. A teenage Earle haunted The Gatehouse, a San Antonio club where a raft of Texas troubadours was already performing Van Zandt songs in 1969. As Earle practiced his craft, he listened to his mentor's music and tried to emulate it. But back then, Earle says, just about everybody did.

"We were all part of the same music cult in those days, and Townes was at the epicenter," Earle says. "He was the first singer/songwriter I ever met who had made a record, and the most surprising thing to me was that he wasn't rich. Townes was dedicated to his art, whether it paid him anything or not, and that made a real big impression on me."

"For the Sake of the Song" was one of the first Van Zandt songs Earle had ever heard, and High, Low and In Between his first Van Zandt album. "I tried to write songs like Townes did, but I had to wait until I was a little older before I could do that," Earle says.

According to legend, Van Zandt caught up with Earle in 1972 when he was performing at The Old Quarter in Houston, where Van Zandt heckled him from the audience for not knowing "Wabash Cannonball." Earle responded by performing Van Zandt's tongue-twisting gambling epic, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," which opened the door for a lifelong relationship. However, Van Zandt always had the upper hand, Earle says.

"I was forever the kid to Townes, but he and I really did connect," Earle says. "When he died at 52, I was 41 and he still never saw me as an adult."

Van Zandt's songwriting tended to echo the musician's appreciation for the works of Shakespeare and 19th- and 20th-century poetry. In addition to alcohol and drugs, Van Zandt also suffered from manic depression, and earlier treatments with insulin shock therapy are rumored to have erased much of the artist's long-term memory. The two worlds often collided, resulting in a musical approach that traveled along a dark edge of reality and a lifestyle that too often attracted the wrong kind of people for the wrong reasons, Earle says.

"I'd like people to realize that Townes Van Zandt was one of the best songwriters who has ever lived," Earle says. "His legacy is not about the wild behavior and it's not about trying to kill yourself, although he was very good at that, too."

For Earle and other artists who are just now discovering the Texas songwriter's genius, there's an assumption that the current state of singing and songwriting would be a few notches lower if Townes Van Zandt had never existed. On a personal level, Earle's praise goes even further.

"If there had been no Townes Van Zandt, there would be no me," Earle says.
Steve Earle plays the Pabst Theater on Wednesday, July 29, at 8 p.m.


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