Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

(Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.)

As tributes go, Townes is the sound of inevitability. One of Steve Earle’s biggest influences, the troubadour famously proclaimed ““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.”  Townes in turn countered, stating “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”   Touche’.  

For this edition of Diversions, Earle discusses each of the tracks chosen for his new Townes tribute LP.

“Pancho and Lefty” :: I think there are a lot of people that might not have recorded this song on a project like this, because they were intimidated by Willie’s version or Emmylou’s version I wanted to be as close to my recollection of the way Townes performed these songs as possible, as far as the performances go. I don’t vouch for my memory as being 100 percent accurate, but it is the way I remember it, and a lot of these are the songs I learned to play and learned to play, period, watching him doing them.

A lot of it was like being in jail. The first day in you go out and pick the biggest motherfucker out there and knock him out so you get to keep your radio. I just wanted to get it out of the way.

“White Freightliner Blues” :: One of the first songs I learned how to play. I think we all did it ‘cause we could. Or thought we could. It was easy, three chords. It’s funny though, ‘cause I left the ‘If you see Miss Caroline’ line out. Just totally an accident — I hadn’t sung it in so long I pulled the lyric off the Internet and the lyric I happened to pull didn’t have that line in it so I missed it.

It really is the blues in a totally stripped-down sense. When I met Townes, he was literally itinerant, really didn’t live anywhere, and it was in Houston, which was a big, dark fascinating place. Most of us then were living somewhere on his migratory path and were waiting with bated breath for him to come blasting through. We lived for it — every single fucking one of us — Guy and Susanna Clark, John Lomax, Dale Soffar, Wrecks [Bell] — players for sure, but other people too. Everybody from complete ne’er-do-wells to people who kind of went back to normal once Townes was gone. “White Freight” is sort of the soundtrack of the high-velocity migratory path of his.

“Colorado Girl” :: It’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve played it but never recorded it. There had to be a Colorado song on here, and I looked at a lot of ‘em — “Our Mother the Mountain,” “My Proud Mountains” and all of ‘the others. Because that was a huge part of Townes. He loved that middle part of the Rocky Mountains more than any other place on Earth.   There was a time when that was when he was happiest and healthiest. He’d spent a lot of that time outside and he’d turn up in Texas when it started to get colder in pretty good shape.

So “Colorado Girl” is a blues, just a really pretty one. I learned how to play it open-D the way he did. I do play it a little different than he did but it is in the same key and it’s the exact same arrangement. And just like his recording of it, I didn’t do anything to it — it’s just guitar and vocal.

“Where I Lead Me” :: This has always been one of the scariest songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve worked it up with bands a couple of times. That’s actually a loop on the record, a really good live loop that I cut out of something that was recorded, that I have the rights to and everything, but it’s a loop. It’s Dennis Crouch on upright bass and me on guitar; the harmonica, guitar and my vocal performance were all done in my apartment. The harp’s through a bullet mic and an amp, and the amp’s in the bathroom and I’m in the kitchen. I’ve got a one-bedroom apartment and the ceiling’s kinda low, so it sounds a little odd. But once we started overdubbing we really tried to keep everything sounding intimate, like it was all recorded in this room.

“Lungs” :: I’ve done it for a very, very long time and it’s one of my favorite Townes songs. The story I heard was that he was in New York and he had pneumonia, literally, just got walkin’ pneumonia. He was literally sick with a respiratory ailment. It’s literal past the poetic decimal point.   He was a bad-ass. The difference between Townes and Bob Dylan is, and this makes Townes a lot more radical to me in some ways, is Dylan was really heavily influenced by the same kinds of music, but lyrically he was influenced more by modern French poets and the Beats. Whereas Townes was much more influenced by old-school, conventional lyric poets like Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. And it’s cool, it’s where a lot of the uniqueness of his voice comes from. ‘Cause it is Lightnin’ Hopkins against Robert Frost, and it’s pretty startling.

“Rake” :: “Rake” is a huge influence on my life because it’s in an archaic voice, almost in an archaic form of English. “Rake” is the same song as “Silver Ships” but “Silver Ships” is more Tolkein-involved and “Rake” is much earlier. They’re the same melody, but it’s not like it was particularly Townes’s melody anyway — it’s a minor-key English or Irish folk-song melody, it’s modal…It’s like “Marie” and “Nothin,’” are very, very close — both are minor-key blues — and it’s one of the reasons I didn’t record “Nothin’” which I love, because Plant and Allison Krauss just recorded it on their last record.

“No Place to Fall” :: All of these vocals are live, just live guitar and vocals with overdubs, except for part of this song. When I decided I wanted to just open it with just harmonium and voice…When you are recorded just guitar and vocal stuff, your guitar is all over your vocals and vice versa ‘cause the two mics are just eight inches apart. So that one I had to re-record the vocal to have a clean vocal to go in over the harmonium on the front. Most of it is pretty straight-ahead but this was one of the few where I got into the way that I normally think when I’m making a record.

This has always been one of my favorites, and I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to record “If I Needed You” which I still think is one of Townes’s best songs. But it had been recorded enough times where I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to record it, which left me free to record “No Place to Fall.” They are kind of the same song, thematically. I was kinda happy that I ended up recording it. I played “If I Needed You” at about six or seven weddings.

“Loretta” :: “Loretta” pisses women off sometimes, I know that. “Loretta” is a total fantasy. Townes was hard to put up with, for women especially. It’s hard to live with someone who was as off the hook as he could get sometimes. So Loretta was just the absolute, complete and total fantasy woman that you know, this ain’t gonna happen no way, no how. It’s always fascinated me. I’m pretty proud of the track — we wanted to get a feel like “Cecilia” or “Give Peace a Chance” where it’s sort of pieced together and it turned out really cool. It started with just me clapping and stompin’ with a lot of echo on it — that’s how we started out on that loop — and then I just played to that.

“Brand New Companion” :: I’ve been playing it a while. Me and Will Rigby (my drummer) do a sort of Black Keys’ style version of it on my encores sometimes, just electric guitar and drums. That’s just me doin’ Townes doin’ Lightnin’. That’s what it is. Townes understood exactly what Lightnin’ was doin’. Billy Gibbons is just Lightnin’ really loud. That’s the thing about Houston — there’s a Houston thing that everybody who ever seriously tried to make music there…it’s hard to wash off. It’s there in Doug Sahm too, because as much as he’s associated with San Antonio, he did all that work with Huey Meaux.

When I was growing up, Houston was the big-time. San Antonio and Austin — neither of them were. It was where International Artists was located, all the labels.

It’s the youngest city of any size in the United States. Before 1900 it didn’t really exist, and then they discovered oil, and then it just rose literally out of the muck — “primordial” in quotation marks. There is something there. Townes is from Houston and in a lot of ways musically, I’m from Houston. There was a lot of stuff that happens there that just can’t happen anywhere else in Texas. I think part of it is that Houston is more of a part of the South than the rest of Texas, more of a connection to what’s east of it than San Antonio has. There were no black people in San Antonio. The only ones I ever saw were in the military. Houston has a connection to Louisiana and the Gulf and it’s just it’s own thing. And Galveston’s part of it, that wide-open port. I mean, Galveston’s where they took shit that they were afraid to bring into New Orleans. It’s really important to remember that.

“Delta Momma Blues” :: Besides the really bad fiddle, the original is a really great recording, because Townes’s finger-picking is so great. He really plays his ass off on it. People think it’s interesting that he wrote it from the perspective of a female character and they pitch it for female artists to record, and it would be a great song for a female artist, but I’m not sure the character speaking to you in that song is a woman. I’m not sure that’s a woman talking to you in that song. I think we got my ambiguity about that on tape.

“Don’t You Take It Too Bad” :: It’s my favorite Townes song right now. My favorite Townes, Beatles, and Rolling Stones song shifts some, because there are so many great ones, but I come back to “Don’t You Take It Too Bad” at least two or three times in my life. Right now probably because I just recorded it and got reacquainted with it on an intimate level, it’s my favorite again. It’s so unique. It has no chorus — it’s a sentence, basically, a thought. We all tried to play this one too. Richard Dobson played it all the time, and Susanna Clark loved it. It was one of her favorites.

All the Texas songwriters wrote way too many waltzes in the ‘70s. There were tons and tons and tons of them, but this might have been the best of all of them, and there were a lot of really good lyrics that were applied to three-quarter time. For some reason three-quarter time just felt good at 3:30 in the morning, and we were all up at 3:30 nearly all the time.

“Mr Mudd And Mr Gold” :: That’s me and Justin. We’ve been playing that together for awhile. The first time we did it was at a benefit at the Ryman, probably five or six years ago. When I decided to do it, I recorded a version of it here, and I forgot that Justin is the way he is, and I had to re-record it in Nashville at a faster tempo that was more comfortable for him.

“Marie” :: The thing about “Marie” that’s sobering is I think that it’s Townes seeing himself in other people. The thing about Townes’s songs is that they are all about him. I don’t think he knew how to write about anybody else. I don’t care who the character is or what the vehicle is — they are all about him, and that’s a job, that’s what the job is. We all use that, but Townes more than anybody I ever saw.

He wrote it after he had not written any songs for a long time. It was just so stunning for that song to come out of nowhere the way that it did. It’d been a while since “Flyin’ Shoes” and that little batch of songs.

I first heard “Marie” at the end of a temperance lecture. I know when I first heard it, because I was in really, really bad shape. I’d just moved back from Los Angeles. Everybody was worried about me dyin’. I was still married to Teresa, but she was getting ready to leave me. She was a lot closer to leaving me than I had any idea — she was practically packed. And she had picked me up somewhere in South Nashville and took me to the house — which was never locked — and Townes’s truck was in the driveway. And that really pissed Teresa off, so she went in the back of the house, and I went inside and Townes was sitting there playing my guitar.

He looks up and says “You look like shit.” And I said, “I know.” And he said, “Your arms really look like shit.” My arms looked like hamburger. After a while, if you stick a needle in your arm enough times, and cocaine kind of insists that you do, they swell up. So I looked like Popeye. So Townes said “Do you have clean needles?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Every time?” And I said “Yeah.” So he says, “Hey man, listen to this song I just wrote.” And he played “Marie.” That was pretty real. And it blew my mind. On some levels it’s one of the darkest songs ever written, but Townes has done scarier shit.

By the time Townes recorded “Marie” he didn’t play like that anymore and so the version of “Marie” that was recorded is other people playing and Townes singing and it’s much slower, so I took this leap. I thought that this was what “Marie” would have been more like if he had recorded it when he was younger and still playing really well.

“To Live’s to Fly” :: It’s every bit as intimidating as “Pancho and Lefty” and every bit as important to hardcore Townes fans. It’s one of my favorites and it always has been. I normally don’t like songs that are about me doing what I do for a living. People don’t want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself, because you’re riding on a bus that costs more than their house.

Now Townes was never that successful. It was always relatively hard traveling for him. But, that song was about us. Those of us that were some of the people that were living in the places that were in his path. I know that sounds weird and makes us sound kinda pitiful, but that was what we did. It really was a cult with him at the center. We were all involved in a cult in the real, strictest sense of that word. I’m not saying that it was a bad thing, but it was a bad thing for some people. I saw some people hurt themselves. But overall, it was about what was good about him and what was great about him and I don’t regret it. I am who I am because of my mother and father and Townes and Guy and Susanna. They finished raising me.

I’m pretty fierce about him. That’s another reason I’m glad I did this record. I’m only semi-famous but I think enough people hear my stuff to where this could be the next push toward more people knowing who he was.   words/ steve earle

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9 thoughts on “Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

  1. damn, steve’s so cool. i’m really happy he’s put out this record, as i am in need of schooling when it comes to townes.

    i stepped into amoeba when he was playing his most recent in-store and it was an honor to hear him singing in such close proximity. glad the world’s got steve earle.

  2. One of the greatest liver recordings of all time in my opinion is “Together at the Bluebird Cafe”, so I was keen when I heard that Earle was doing this. But then Steve seems to have lost some of his punch in the last few albums, so I’m still deciding whether or not to buy this one. I’m thinking harder after reading this. Thanks.

  3. While the album is solid and done well, I think the stories that I’ve heard from Earle about Townes and his songs are by far my favorite thing that has come out of this record.

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