CD Review: Steve Earle - 'Townes'

Friday, June 5, 2009

STEVE EARLE

"Townes"

Kindred spirits: Dave Alvin, James McMurtry, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Kelly

Show: Today with John Prine at Wolf Trap. Show starts at 8 p.m. 703-255-1900. http://wolftrap.net.

To pay tribute to his most influential mentor, Steve Earle not only named his son Justin Townes Earle but also spouted the quote: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

That claim is only slightly exaggerated, as Earle proves on the 15 Van Zandt compositions that make up the new album "Townes." Whether it's well-known numbers such as "Pancho and Lefty" and "White Freightliner Blues" or obscurities such as "Colorado Girl" and "Brand New Companion," the language is less showy than Dylan's but just as muscular and evocative -- and fits just as comfortably into the borrowed folk melodies.

Those who have heard Van Zandt's songs interpreted only by Willie Nelson or Emmylou Harris or by Van Zandt himself in his post-1979 years of decline have no idea how mesmerizing the songwriter's sandpaper voice could be in his 1970s concerts and recordings. Earle recaptures that vocal approach with all its dry-as-dust irony.

But because Earle has a much better vocal instrument than his mentor ever did and a more imaginative approach to instrumental arrangements , these interpretations add something new to the songs. And his son Justin is now old enough to sing a duet on "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold."

-- Geoffrey Himes

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