Monday, October 12, 2009
Steve Earle was on "These Days" today, talking about his new album "Townes," a tribute to Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. Earle will be performing a number of Van Zandt songs tonight at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. I didn't know much about Van Zandt before researching this story, and I don't think I'm alone there. Van Zandt never achieve widespread fame, though he had a devoted, cult following and other songwriters admired him greatly. Earle has said that "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Dylan, by the way, was reportedly a huge fan of Van Zandt's, and often tried to collaborate but Van Zandt always turned him down. Earle has also pointed out that Van Zandt "shot himself in the foot every time success got close."
A country-western and folk singer, Van Zandt struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and was diagnosed as a manic depressive when he was in his early 20's. He was born into oil money, but never comfortable with his family wealth. In the "These Days" interview, Earle noted that Van Zandt's first marriage broke up because he used to bring homeless people to the house all the time. Earle suggests Van Zandt couldn't reconcile having so much money for luck of birth when there's so much poverty around. For much of the 1970s, Van Zandt lived in a shack on the outskirts of Nashville with no running water or electricity. He did, however, keep writing songs and performing in the small venues that were his preference.
Van Zandt was a mentor to Earle, so much so that Earle named his first son Townes. Earle admired Van Zandt as an artist - for his songwriting skills and his purist approach to the art. Van Zandt was notoriously flip about the recording industry and success in the business, saying he was going to write great songs no matter what. Earle admits he was ambitious and wanted to make a living at his art. I would imagine their similar struggles with heroin and alcohol bound them as well. Earle admitted there's a lot of survivor's guilt in this new album made up entirely of Van Zandt covers. Townes Van Zandt died in 1997 from complications due to long-term addiction. Here he is playing his song "Waiting to Die" in the 1981 documentary "Heartworn Highways."