New West Records
By James Calemine
"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that," Steve Earle once uttered. Earle’s new CD, Townes, proves a lifetime allegiance to his old friend.
Earle knew Van Zandt from the late 70s. In the liner notes of this CD, Earle wrote about Van Zandt lending him two books when they first met—Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and War and Peace: “I always read everything that Townes told me to read. All of us did; we who followed him around, or simply bided our time in places along his migratory path, for we were indeed a cult, in the strictest sense of the word, with Townes at its ever shifting center.” Turns out, in typical humor, Van Zandt never read War and Peace. He just thought Earle should.
15 songs exist on Townes. The first song—Van Zandt’s biggest hit—“Poncho & Lefty” resonates. Earle nails it. He knows Van Zandt’s music so well he can add subtle sonic textures like banjos, mandolins, fiddles, harmoniums and even drum loops without distracting from the original version. This is a great CD for the headphones.
“White Freightliner” is rendered in bluegrass style and it stirs the soul…pure inspiration. Earle recruited Justin Townes Earle, Allison Moorer, Dennis Crouch, Greg Morrow, Tim O’Brien, Shad Cobb, Tom Morello and Steve Christensen to provide musical expertise on these tunes recorded “somewhere in New York City” and Nashville.
Just Earle’s guitar picking on “Colorado Girl” evokes emotion. This song alone pays for the CD. Earle sounds proud to sing these songs and his emotion shines through. His rendition of “Colorado Girl” stands without flaw. “Where I Lead Me” takes a life of its own…complete with Earle’s sinister harmonica parts.
Earle sings “Lungs” in a rasp as Morello’s disturbing guitar emits dissonance that gives the composition a sense of a perilous undertow. “No Place To Fall” sounds as if it’s being played on some countryside in Ireland, or Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. “Loretta”, complete with a Pro-Tools loop, does not fail the original version. Earle brings a fresh sound to these songs without tainting Van Zandt’s original versions.
“Brand New Companion” resembles a lowdown blues sound that would’ve made Townes' old friend Lightning Hopkins proud--a great guitar tone on this track. “Don’t Take It Too Bad” sounds mighty fine the way Earle marries country and bluegrass into one cohesive sound. A gem, “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold”, verifies the sheer poetry of Van Zandt that transcends time. “To Live Is to Fly” closes Townes, and Earle’s rendition would surely make his old buddy proud. This CD ranks as one of the best of 2009. Long live Townes…