Among the many tales told about Townes Van Zandt was a yarn recounted to me years ago by one-time Lexington troubadour Frank Schaap. As he explained it, the fabled Texas songwriter, hopelessly high or inebriated or both after a show, sought to settle his bar tab. Penniless at the time, Van Zandt offered a gold filling in his mouth as payment.
Aghast, the bartender said Van Zandt's drinks were on the house. Having none of that, Van Zandt went to the parking lot, grabbed pliers and performed dental surgery on himself. But the tooth he extracted wasn't the one with the filling.
Fact or fable? Probably a bit of both. Van Zandt, much like the inhab itants of his songs, often led a dangerously spontaneous life. Whether he doubled as his own tooth fairy is pure conjecture. What remains, though, 12 years after Van Zandt's death, are immensely literate, haplessly emotive and often relentlessly desperate songs that any serious Americana artist in or out of Texas views with justifiable reverence.
Among his more direct disciples is Steve Earle, the Grammy- winning renegade songsmith who wrestled with his own rings of fire over the years but lived to achieve the kind of notoriety than generally escaped Van Zandt during his lifetime.
On Townes, Earle offers a tribute to his mentor that is by no means easy or obvious. Vocally, it is as ragged as anything Earle has recorded. On one of Van Zandt's most deceptively upbeat songs, White Freight Liner Blues (upbeat, that is, until you scan the despondency of the lyrics), Earle sounds as if he is left almost breathless by the tune's giddy pace. Elsewhere on Townes, Earle's Texas drawl sweeps over the music like fog.
Musically, the record is all over the road with arrangements as varied as the temperaments of Van Zandt's lyrics.
Some tunes were cut in Earle's New York apartment and unravel as stark acoustic meditations, such as the solo Colorado Song. Earle shines deeper light on the often ignored elegance of Van Zandt's music by adding discreet strings to the waltzlike (Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria. Similarly, the contours of Delta Momma Blues are colored by very different strings — the bluegrass-inspired support of Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Tim Crouch and Shad Cobb.
But it's difficult not to be drawn to what Earle does to Van Zandt's bleaker works. On Lungs, he continues the folk/groove experiments initiated with producer/Dust Brother John King on the 2007 album Washington Square Serenade. Mutated by vocal distortion, drum loops and the guitar drive of Tom Morello, the sound has the menace of a Howlin' Wolf blues record. But the lyrics of death and salvation ... that's pure Townes.
Earle's wife, fellow Americana great Allison Moorer, sings harmonies on Loretta and the album-closing embrace of release, To Live Is to Fly. And on the obscure Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold, supposedly designed as a TV western theme, Earle sings a duet with son and blooming neo-country songsmith Justin Townes Earle. That the younger Earle's name is partially dedicated to Van Zandt speaks to extent of the elder Earle's devotion.
Topping all of that is another overlooked Van Zandt saga of bedevilment called Rake. It's a remorseless, reckless saga that begins dark and turns positively black. But Earle, backed by acoustic guitar and strings, gives the song a sweeping, almost Irish air.
Such was the poetic depth of Van Zandt. And so goes the uneasy but very complimentary view of his work by an especially devout and daring protégé.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic