Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

©2009 Connect Savannah


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, 1995)

On his current cross–country tour, Steve Earle is performing solo, just his voice and acoustic guitar, the way his hero and mentor always did it.

Townes Van Zandt was at the epicenter of a loosely–knit group of Texan singer/songwriters who came together periodically in the mid 1970s — usually at Guy Clark’s house in Nashville — to drink, smoke, tell tales and try out their latest compositions, into the wee hours.

Clark and Van Zandt, old friends from the Lone Star folk–club circuit, were the veterans in the gang. Earle was the “kid,” and he idolized Van Zandt, who’d been making records (albeit without commercial success) for several years, and was considered by many to be the consummate songwriter — his oeuvre included “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live is To Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “White Freightliner Blues” and dozens more.

Earle was still a decade away from “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road” and the songs that would make him an alt/country superstar.

A lot of water has gone under Steve Earle’s bridge, not all of it pure and sparkling. These days, he’s clean, sober and happily married to singer Allison Moorer, and his two most recent albums (The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade) won Grammy Awards in the Contemporary Folk/Americana category.

Out now is Townes, a collection of mostly solo covers of Van Zandt songs.

It is a loving tribute to Van Zandt, who’s become quite the legend since he pretty much drank himself to death in 1997.

Earle’s performance will consist of a number of songs from Townes, “but it’ll be mostly my songs,” he says. “Townes is in most of my songs. Especially when I play ’em solo.”

Bill DeYoung: For all the praise everybody heaps on him, Townes — especially as a singer — was something of an acquired taste. Many of his songs were dark and inscrutable. Sometimes, particularly in his final years, it was hard to figure what all the fuss was about.

Steve Earle: Everybody’s kind of known what Townes was like at his peak by hearing me, and Guy, and a lot of other people — we were members of a cult, Hoss. We’re cult members — in truth, that word’s misused, but we were members of a cult.

As listening experiences, Townes’ recordings weren’t nearly as enjoyable — or as successful — as Guy’s, for example. Or yours. That commercial thing just didn’t happen for him.

It was his fault. Look, he didn’t make great records. And even at the peak of his power his records are really spotty. There are moments in ’em that are brilliant.

Record–making and songwriting are two different things. Townes, I know for a fact, was only interested in writing songs. For whatever reason.

I don’t think Townes was a misunderstood genius and a victim, I don’t buy that. I think he shot himself in the foot every single fucking chance he got. Even the people he associated with were part of the ammunition he used in taking these potshots at his feet, fucking constantly.

Townes was an alcoholic, and there was lots of other stuff going on. He was also brilliant, really smart, and one of the best songwriters that ever lived. And those are all separate things — they aren’t rolled up together into this big package. It’s real easy for people to sit around and talk about that shit…

They talk about how combustible he was…

The truth of the matter is, I’m pretty fucking good, and one of the main reasons I’m as good as I am is that I met him when I was 17 years old. And I saw someone that was making art at this incredibly high level — and did not give a fuck whether he ever made any money. And that’s what I aspired to. That part of it I kept, and I keep to this day.

Now, as to the rest of it. I had the same disease Townes had. I had one of ’em. And I, for some reason, survived it. I managed to get sober. And I still think I write pretty good songs. But nobody can answer that question, and where we get lost, I think, in trying to sort out what and who Townes and people like Townes were, is when we get too … all of us were caught up in the romance of it when it was going on.

But Townes is literally legendary. And Townes is getting more famous the longer he’s gone; that’s real–life legendary shit. But the fact of the matter is, there’s kind of a handful of us that saw it. And we’re all not going to be around forever, either.

I wanted to make a record based on what I saw. It’s not based on Townes’ records. It’s based on my recollection — to the best of my ability — of Townes performing these songs, solo, when I first met him in 1972.

Keep in mind, we were all alcoholics and addicts. Because my fuse was a little longer than Townes’, it took a lot longer for my life to blow up. But I’m definitely guilty of saying “Well, I’m OK because I’m better than he is,” when it came to the way that we behaved. But I always knew that he was a better songwriter than I was.

I heard that he was tough to get approval out of, when everybody was sitting around playing their new songs.

Townes either paid attention to you or he didn’t. Guy would say “That’s a great song.” I don’t think Townes ever said that to me. The only thing Townes ever said to me about one of my songs was, when I wrote “The Devil’s Right Hand” in ’77, he’d become concerned about my fascination with guns, which he didn’t have any room to talk about. He just remarked “Hell, he’s even writin’ songs about guns.” That’s the only comment that Townes ever made about any song that I ever wrote.

But Townes knew who was good and who wasn’t. I knew when I impressed Townes and when I didn’t. He didn’t say it, but I knew how to gauge his reaction to my songs and incorporate that at times — or not incorporate it — into how I proceeded.

Did Townes know how good he was?

Oh yeah. Look, I know Bruce Springsteen fairly well, I know Bob Dylan as well as you can know Bob Dylan — he’s a hard guy to know — but the one thing that impresses me about those two guys when you meet ’em … Bruce knows he’s Bruce Springsteen, Bob knows he’s Bob Dylan. But by the time I met them I’d seen that before: Townes Van Zandt knew he was Townes Van Zandt. And he knew how good he was.

How could he not? He didn’t do anything else! He didn’t put any energy into anything else except for making songs. Everything else was just killing time. I think there is some truth to the idea of Townes being a little Vincent-esque, in that he maybe was not quite wired for this world, in a lot of ways. I think Kurt Cobain was that way, I think Vincent Van Gogh was that way. That’s very romantic to look at, but it’s really not anything but sad. It probably wasn’t a lot of fun to live. And we all suffer for it when it happens. It took Townes a lot longer to die than Kurt, and a fair amount longer than Vincent.

I have to be nothing but thankful that it didn’t happen to me that way. There’s a lot of survivor guilt in this record, Hoss. I don’t know why I’m here and he’s not. Why did I get sober, and why he never even fuckin’ try? He wasn’t interested.

From a songwriters’ point of view, why was he great?

He was a post-Bob Dylan songwriter who took it to heart that songwriting had been elevated once and for all as an art form, and he approached it as art. And he did it at this incredibly high level. He didn’t say “I’m gonna give myself three years at this, and if it doesn’t work out I’m gonna get a job,” he burned the bridges and the boats.

What’s easy to misinterpret with Townes is to think that alcoholism and – well, just say it – mental illness, were part of that. They were not part of that decision. That’s coincidence. And that’s what everybody misses.

When I was 17 I met this guy who was making art at this incredible level. That’s why songwriters are in awe of him. Bob Dylan didn’t hear about Townes Van Zandt from me! He already knew about Townes before I said what I said, trust me. When I was touring with Dylan in ’88, he played “Pancho and Lefty” the second night of the tour, just to let me know that he heard what I said and that he knew who Townes Van Zandt was.

I remember asking Townes why Lefty had double–crossed Pancho, and he shut me down with “I don’t think there’s any evidence that Pancho and Lefty even knew each other.” So, you tell me — what is that song about?

You’re thinking it’s about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell?

No, oh no. I always thought it was about an outlaw who betrayed another outlaw, then spent his blood money until he was destitute and miserable in Ohio: “Where he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows.”

He got to the point where he’d set up the song by saying “It’s about so–and–so and so–and–so,” and he’d change it every time. My favorite was Billy Graham and Guru Maharaj Ji.

It’s about Townes. They’re both Townes. That’s my theory. More than any other songwriter or artist you’ll ever meet, Townes’ stuff is about Townes. And it takes an incredible level of artistry — it could be incredibly self–centered and hard to listen to if he wasn’t as good as he was. But he does it so well; he always finds what we relate to in his experience. He’s looking inward and describing what he sees in such detail that he can’t help but come up with stuff that we all have in us. And I don’t know any other way to describe it.

He was so funny. I play a little bit, and I sometimes will tell some of those same jokes and one–liners Townes used in his onstage patter.

I was there, opening for Townes, the night he played at the Texas A&M University coffeehouse. He walked onstage and the first thing out of his mouth was “So, I hear y’all want to be called Agro–Americans now.” And one guy laughed, besides me.

I liked the version of “Tecumseh Valley” you did on your acoustic album Train a Comin.’

I had never even considered recording a cover, except for a few live things and stuff for movies. I had just gotten out of jail; I had written some songs, and some of ’em I wanted to save for a rock record. The covers I recorded were one Townes Van Zandt song, one Beatles song and “The Rivers of Babylon.” And then some older songs of mine that I had written before I started making records: “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and “Ben McCulloch” were both written when I was 19 or 20. They’d just never gotten recorded. “Mercenary Song” was the same thing.

Was it important to you that this be a solo acoustic tour?

Solo, I think, is the way to tour with this record. There isn’t any doubt about it. I wouldn’t have known what to tell a band to do with this stuff, either in the studio or onstage. It’s really weird — I didn’t write a note, but this might be the most personal record I’ve ever made.