Steve Earle's Hero, Heckler: Townes Van Zandt Van Zandt's songs of loners, lovers and misfits made a deep impression on Earle, so much so that he's made a new album of covers. Earle tells Melissa Block about Townes, a tribute to his friend and musical mentor.
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Steve Earle's Hero, Heckler: Townes Van Zandt

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Steve Earle's Hero, Heckler: Townes Van Zandt

Steve Earle's Hero, Heckler: Townes Van Zandt

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. In Houston and around Texas in the 1970s, the name Townes Van Zandt had a magical pull. The singer-songwriter with the long, thin face, the well-worn voice and his songs, stories of loners and lovers and misfits.

(Soundbite of song, "Pancho and Lefty")

Mr. TOWNES VAN ZANDT (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Living on the road my friend, was gonna keep me free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron and your breath's as hard as kerosene.

BLOCK: Townes Van Zandt died of a heart attack in 1997. He was 52 and had lived hard. Years of alcoholism took a toll. He inspired a generation of younger songwriters. And no doubt his most devoted protege was Steve Earle, who became a lifelong friend and has just released an album of Townes Van Zandt songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Pancho and Lefty")

Mr. STEVE EARLE (Musician): (Singing) Pancho is a bandit boy, his horse as fast as polished steel, wore his gun outside his pants.

BLOCK: Steve Earle remembers crashing a party in 1972 as a teenager and falling under the Townes Van Zandt spell.

Mr. EARLE: About 2:30 in the morning, Townes walked in, and it was the first time I'd ever been in an environment with him where we weren't separated by a microphone. And he had on this beautiful buckskin jacket, and Townes started a crap game and lost every dime that he had and that jacket. And within 15 minutes, and I thought, my hero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Did you talk to him at that party, or were you just…

Mr. EARLE: No, the first time I talked to him, I just watched, but probably less than a month later, I was playing at the Old Quarter in Houston, and nobody was there because it was me that was playing. There was about six or eight people. And then I came down for my second set, and Townes Van Zandt's sitting right in front of me.

And, you know, so I was terrified but also probably a little drunk and, you know, because it was the second set. And I got up and I started playing, and he was - he did not make a sound while I was actually singing but heckled me constantly between songs. He kept asking, he said, play the "Wabash Cannonball," and I'm like okay, great, Townes Van Zandt's heckling me. Just great. And I'd just play another song. And then in between every song, he was like play the "Wabash Cannonball," and finally I just told him - he was sitting literally with his feet on this tiny stage, right in the front row, and I said I don't know the "Wabash Cannonball," man.

And he said you call yourself a folk singer, and you don't know the "Wabash Cannonball"? And you know, I mean, I still don't know. I hate Roy Acuff. I always have, but it was - finally I played a song called "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" that Townes wrote that has about a bazillion words, and he shut up.

BLOCK: That song that you played at the Old Quarter that night, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," the Townes Van Zandt song, you do it on this tribute album.

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold")

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) When the wicked king of clubs awoke, it was to his queen he turned. His lips were laughing as they spoke. His eyes like bullets burned. The sun's upon a gamblin' day. The queen smiled low and blissfully. Let's make some wretched fool to pay, and plain it was she did agree.

Mr. JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE (Musician): (Singing) So he sent his deuce down into diamond, his four to heart, and his trey to spade, three kings with their legions come and preparations soon were made. They voted club the day's commander. Give him an army, face, and number, all but the outlaw jack of diamonds and the aces in the sky.

BLOCK: So this is your oldest son here, Justin Townes Earle, Townes, obviously named after Townes Van Zandt.

Mr. EARLE: Yeah, I mean when Justin was born, I called Townes, and I said well, it's a boy, and his name's Justin Townes, and he goes, is that after anybody in my family?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold")

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) Now Muddy checked, and Gold bet all.

Mr. J. EARLE (Musician): (Singing) And Muddy raised, and Gold did call, and that smile just melted off his face when Mudd turned over that diamond ace.

Mr. EARLE and Mr. J. EARLE: (Singing) Now this is what this story told. You feel like Mudd and will end up Gold, you feel like lost, you'll end up fine, so (unintelligible).

BLOCK: With all of the dozens of songs that Townes Van Zandt wrote over the years, you come to do this tribute album, and you have to narrow it down. How did you do that? How did you figure out what would end up on this CD?

Mr. EARLE: It was really hard. I mean, I've recorded a handful of Townes' songs over the years. I did try to avoid - there's - and I don't want anyone to take this the wrong way. I'm really grateful that so many more people know about Townes, but a lot of the people that have latched onto Townes never saw him at the height of his power. They never saw him as a great performer, and they never heard him when he could really sing and when he really could play. And what they key on is something they perceived as being really dark and really dangerous, and they think that's what it's all about. And I think that's - I think there's three things going on with Townes that are completely separate.

I think he was an alcoholic, and he may have had some other, you know, mental health issues going on. But he was also one of the best songwriters that ever lived. I think these are all three completely and totally separate phenomena that have nothing to do with each other.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) I stood in line, and I left my name, took about six hours (unintelligible). Then the man just grinned like it was all a game, they said they'd let me know. I put in my time 'til the Pocono Line shut down three years ago.

Mr. EARLE: I wanted to make a record that was about how great his songs were. So it would've been geared towards being a pretty well-rounded collection of Townes Van Zandt songs that sort of represented a cross-section of what he was capable of as a writer.

BLOCK: Tell me about the song "Rake." This isn't a song that I'm familiar with, but…

Mr. EARLE: It's really early. Well, it's - I don't know. You have to understand how early this song is. It's on his third record or something like that.

(Soundbite of song, "Rake")

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) Are you looking at me now, don't think I don't know what all of your eyes are saying (Unintelligible).

Mr. EARLE: It's very traditional poetry in a lot of ways, but it's also very dark. And I think we all try to find romantic, classical justifications for our own behavior.

BLOCK: You know, it seems like there are all kinds of myths that have built up around Townes Van Zandt over the years.

Mr. EARLE: And I helped to make a lot of them up.

BLOCK: You did, and he did, too, I think. Did he enjoy that?

Mr. EARLE: Well probably, but I mean the deal is - you know, I say make them up. I mean, we are - I am one of the authors of the myth, and it's, you know, and I'm very proud of that.

BLOCK: What are some of those myths that you have helped to cultivate?

Mr. EARLE: Well, I'm - you know, I can't tell you that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EARLE: That's like - it becomes no longer mythic at that point 'cause, you know, what makes myths important is it's not - you know, myths aren't lies because parts of them are true. And otherwise they don't work if there isn't truth in them.

BLOCK: Well Steve Earle, thanks very much.

Mr. EARLE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARLE: (Singing) If I have no place to call…

BLOCK: Steve Earle's CD is titled "Townes." You can hear full songs at

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