The cult of Townes Van Zandt has only grown since his death in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 1997. The official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia, brought on by many years of substance abuse. Tales of his reckless and hilarious exploits are legion, and sometimes it seems as if his young followers have taken the wrong lesson from his passing: His glory wasn't in his excess, but that he managed to create for a while before that excess caught up with him.
It's a lesson that runs bone-deep with Steve Earle. He met Van Zandt in 1972 at The Old Quarter in Houston and adopted him as a friend, mentor and role model. The teenage Texan was impressed by Van Zandt's zeal for uncompromising artistry. As Earle told me in an interview several years ago, "It was very obvious to me that I was seeing someone who wasn't making a single, solitary decision based on, 'Will this sell?' "
So we have Van Zandt at least in part to thank that Earle also appears to have never made a single, solitary decision based on, "Will this sell?" After years sweating it out in the Nashville rhinestone mines in the late 1970s and early '80s, he found himself a sudden major-label star with the success of his Guitar Town album in 1986. Most young country artists in the first blush of fame, with a couple of solid hits like "Guitar Town" and "Goodbye's All We've Got Left," would attempt to repeat the formula as precisely and often as possible. Instead, Earle toughened up his sound and expanded his palette, eschewing even the nominal sheen of Guitar Town for a darker and more raucous sound on albums like Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. He never had any more mainstream country hits, but he did build the foundation for a long career.
Unfortunately, Ph.D.-level songwriting craftsmanship wasn't the only habit Earle and Van Zandt shared. Earle's own drug abuse led him to isolation, despair and finally a stint in prison that thankfully prompted him to clean up his act. Since 1995, he has made up for that lost time with a string of top-shelf albums as diverse as they are consistent. His most recent album of original songs, 2007's folky Washington Square Serenade, movingly chronicles the changes in his life since marrying fellow singer-songwriter Allison Moorer and moving from Nashville to New York City.
Earle is 54 now, and with every day that passes he gets a little bit older than his idol ever got to be. It's a time of life when a man stops wondering who he is and starts figuring out how he got to be that way—what were the parts with which this machine built itself? Whether it's that impulse or just the logistical reality of a momentary break in his songwriting output (he's been finishing work on a novel), earlier this year he released Townes, an album of songs written by his late comrade.
His current tour finds Earle performing solo, just the way he first heard the Van Zandt tunes that take the place of his own for about a third of the set list. (Moorer, well worth your attention in her own right, is a special guest.) It's an evening of marvelous songs sung by a man who rightly absorbed the wisdom they carried instead of the self-destructiveness that laid their creator in his grave. As the man sang, "To live's to fly, low and high." Here's to living.
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