In his brief liner sketch on this album of Townes Van Zandt covers, songwriter Steve Earle writes: "I always read everything 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." While what it was he read isn't worth spoiling here, it's the last part of that long sentence that really matters. Van Zandt inspired a cult, and an even bigger list of pale imitators. Earle may lionize the man and the artist (hence the tribute record), and may have even begun as an imitator, but he became something else entirely -- an iconoclastic (and iconic) artist and producer in his own right who can interpret these songs as such.
Van Zandt may have indeed been Earle's "schoolmaster," but it's Earle who does Van Zandt's artistic legend justice in these 15 diverse, yet stripped down performances of his songs. Many of the choices are obvious: "Pancho and Lefty," "To Live Is to Fly," "White Freightliner Blues," "Delta Momma Blues,"and "Don't Take It Too Bad" among them. Some would be less so, save for an artist of Earle's particular vision and world bent: "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," "Rake," "Marie," "Colorado Girl," and "(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria." That said, none of these arrangements are predictable, and yet all of them work. Earle's approach is very basic with some interesting twists and turns. Acoustic guitars, upright basses, mandolin, Dobro, banjo, fiddle, and mandola sit alongside electric guitars (thanks to Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello) and basses, harmonium, and effects. The distorted blues harp and hand percussion on "Where I Lead Me," is an excellent touch, but the megaphone vocals, ambient and feedback noise, and drum loops and electric guitar crunch on "Lungs" make it sound more like Black 47 covering Van Zandt. The reverb and loops on "Loretta" juxtapose beautifully against the acoustic guitars and the fiddle. The version of "Marie" is less harrowing than its author's; it feels more third-person narrative than first-person horror story -- thank goodness. "White Freightliner Blues" captures the free-in-the-wind bluegrass nature Van Zandt intended, perhaps more so than his own world-weary delivery, thanks in large part to Tim O'Brien's mandolin, Darrell Scott's banjo, and Shad Cobb's fiddle. Earle would have had a hard time blowing this record.
Certainly, he's closer than most to the material as he was to the man, but more than that he's a great songwriter and an avid folk music enthusiast. He understands lineages and the way the tales get told matter in order for them to live on. That's the easy part; the more mercurial thing is how well he succeeded. Earle made Townes' songs seem like an extension of his own last album, 2007's Washington Square Serenade. The same anything-goes-attitude, the adherence to all kinds of folk music, whether it's from across oceans, terrains, or alleyways, whether its roots are rural or urban, permeates this recording, making it an Earle record most of all; and that is about as fitting a tribute as there is to Van Zandt.