Just over a year ago, when Steve Earle was performing at the Kentucky Theatre, the seeds were planted for his next project.
At the time, the long celebrated songsmith was touring behind an album called Washington Square Serenade. The recording was a celebration of his new home (New York), his new wife (fellow Americana singer and scribe Allison Moorer) and his new sound (a merger of stringed folk charm and drum loops produced by John King of the Dust Brothers).
But even in the midst of a tour with Moorer and DJ Neil McDonald as his only accompanists, the next chapter of Earle’s career was being written. In actuality, someone had already penned it for him.
“I don’t know what Allison’s next record is going to be like,” Earle said prior to last year’s show. “But I know I’m going to make an album of Townes Van Zandt songs. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. I’m just going to go ahead and do it. So I think I’ll start recording it as soon as I get done with this tour in November.”
By mid May of this year, the Van Zandt tribute was completed and released with the name of his artistic mentor as the album’s title: Townes. This wasn’t the first time Earle appropriated the name. He had long ago awarded it to his eldest son, now an esteemed roots music stylist in his own right by the name of Justin Townes Earle.
As Long Star songwriters go, few artists came armed with music as full of dark, literate human detail as Van Zandt. Among his finest and more established songs was Tecumseh Valley, which told the story of a miner’s daughter that endured a lifetime of hardships only to die alone as a prostitute. It’s unrelenting in its sadness, yet Van Zandt – who died on New Year’s Day 1997 – doesn’t embroider undue sentimentalism into the work. The story is, in fact, unavoidably poetic.
Earle recorded a version of Tecumseh Valley for Train a Comin’, the 1995 album that served as his reintroduction into a performance world after incarceration and a massively debilitating drug addiction.
Of course, Van Zandt was no angel either. Living a life as colorful and dangerous as his music, he battled alcoholism for years. Lauren St. John’s 2003 biography of Earle, Hardcore Troubadour, recounts a visit Van Zandt made to Earle in 1994 when the latter had hit rock bottom with his addiction.
“I must be bad if they’re sending you,” Earle told Van Zandt at the time.
One of Van Zandt’s most frightening misadventures was recounted by the writer himself on a live recording cut with Earle and longtime Texas songwriting pal Guy Clark in 1995. It was released in 2001 as Together at the Bluebird Cafe.
The story goes that Van Zandt was rolling dice with a friend. The jackpot at stake was a pistol. The wager was a gold tooth – his own. Van Zandt lost but defiantly insisted on paying up. He then performed makeshift oral surgery on himself with a pair of pliers and glass of Southern Comfort as anesthetic. But he extracted the wrong tooth.
When Earle brought the songs of Townes to Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall by way of a solo acoustic performance last June, you couldn’t help but sense the humidity in the music. Admittedly, that was easy as Memorial Hall possessed no air conditioning. Everyone – artist and audience alike – all but sweated themselves into puddles that Saturday night. But the performance went beyond that. It delivered loving but often coarse dramas, from the death rattle verse (and vocals) of Lungs and Where I Lead Me to the gorgeous affirmation of To Live is to Fly.
“We were folk singers,” Van Zandt told me in a 1995 interview before he and Clark performed at the Kentucky. “And that’s what we still call ourselves today. In the early days you picked up your guitar on Wednesday or Thursday for a $25 gig in Houston or Dallas. But action is in the air again for us, my friend. Action is in the air.”
In Cincinnati, Earle made a point to mention that Townes wasn’t simply a dark monument to a friend and mentor. He wanted to spotlight the lighter contours of Van Zandt’s songs. Of course, he stated that before singing the harrowing Lungs. But there were also moments of pure grace, like the lovely Colorado Girl – a song as melodically open as the Rocky Mountains are spacious.
David Letterman seized upon the folklore-level darkness that has come to represent Van Zandt’s life and career when Earle sang Colorado Girl on The Late Show in June.
“Let’s just leave it that he was an interesting fellow and led something of a tortured life,” Letterman told Earle. “Is that safe enough for a sentence or two?”
Without missing a beat, Earle softened the blow. “He was one of the best songwriters that ever walked the earth.”
Steve Earle and Allison Moorer perform at 7 tonight at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets are $29.50 and $36.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or (859) 233-3535.