The genius of Steve Earle is that he can speak to so many people in the same voice. Country boys, army veterans, liberals, college kids, indie music fans all see their experiences reflected in his words. He’s a master songwriter, but he’s also an American man of the people, a social and political radical in the tradition of Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie and a man who, like those singers, is unafraid to speak out with a sharp and sardonic tongue merciless in the face of injustice and hypocrisy. And, like those singers, Earle has drawn his share of criticism from those unable to see that patriotism means speaking out against injustice.
Steve Earle is also a man with a difficult past, who has faced addiction, destitution, despair and misery and come through. On this tour, he is promoting Townes, an album of covers of his mentor and the man Earle’s son was named after, Townes Van Zandt. Unlike Steve Earle, Townes didn’t come through. Townes drank himself to death. There’s a documentary about Townes Van Zandt, but you can see the core of it in the 70s Outlaw Country documentary Heartworn Highways. There’s Townes Van Zandt, looking incongrously good-natured but unquestionably tragic as he juggles a bottle of whiskey, a can of coke and a shotgun, stumbling around in his backyard. In a few scenes of the movie, in the background or as part of an ensemble, is Steve Earle.
I’ve liked Townes Van Zandt for as long as I’ve known about him, but I’ve always had the peculiar sensation that so many of the people who idolize him (including Steve Earle, Guy Clark and other songwriters in his circle ) are better songwriters than he ever was. I love songs like To Live is to Fly and Waiting Round to Die, and I think that Billy, Boney and Ma is probably the greatest shaggy dog story ever given a tune, but Townes’ legacy, the story of a tragic dissipation and fall, has nothing on Steve Earle’s continued vibrancy and growth, and Townes’ vision seems pale, narrow and internal while Earle’s is broad, integrating the personal the universal.
In light of this, I have to admit my feelings about this show were a little complex and ambivalent coming in. But Earle is a man who knows his audience. More than half of what he played were his classics, the songs the audience was dying to hear. And the Townes he played was all beautiful, all diligently perfected by a faithful student who, more than a decade beyond his mentor’s death, loves him more than ever. I don’t know whether Townes was really as great as he was in Steve Earle’s eyes, but it’s beautiful to hear a songwriter you admire show you the songs that meant the most to him. I admire both singers a little more for seeing it.