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Album review: Steve Earle's 'Townes'

May 11, 2009 |  5:02 pm

Earle_240_rev Townes Van Zandt was so revered in music circles that when the Texas singer-songwriter died unexpectedly in 1997 -- at age 52 of a heart attack -- a tribute concert that family members and friends assembled a couple of months later ran 6 1/2 hours. And that was here in L.A., not even on his home turf.

It's long been clear how deeply Van Zandt's music affects other singer-songwriters, particularly those from the Lone Star State: Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, Joe Ely, Steve Earle and countless others have sung his praises. Earle once famously threatened to stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table while proclaiming Van Zandt to be the world's greatest songwriter.

Now Earle has collected 15 of his favorites from Van Zandt -- including his best-known composition, "Pancho and Lefty," which has been recorded dozens of times, most famously as a duet back in 1983 by Nelson and Merle Haggard -- for an obviously heartfelt salute that oddly misses the mark too often.

There's no fault with the song selection, as Van Zandt was a remarkably consistent writer of tales that brought desperation and alienation into high relief, and these underscore his reputation as the poet laureate of Texas music.

Van Zandt's own performances highlighted the conversational quality of his vocals, which projected a sort of wizened detachment from the subject matter. There was a lilt in his voice that communicated his recognition that the downside of life on Earth was every bit as integral to the human experience as happy days were.

While Earle's gruff voice is endearingly effective on his own tales of moral outrage and social empathy, it tends to imbue Van Zandt's deftly detailed songs with an unintentionally dour undercurrent.

Listen, by contrast, to the way Emmylou Harris and Don Williams enlivened his wee-hours cry for companionship, "If I Needed You," back in 1981. They, like the song's composer, fell neither into inconsolable sorrow nor escapist happiness, but walked that fine observational line between the two.

Perhaps in concert Earle can bring along his wife, sterling singer Allison Moorer, to help him balance the scales.

-- Randy Lewis

Steve Earle

(New West)
Two and a half stars