Steve Earle is a singer/songwriter who holistically embodies the word, “Americana,” from his chord-forming fingers to the blood running through his veins.
He has embraced the chaotic mess best described as life lived honestly; he’s experienced the peaks of euphoria, witnessed an execution, had a notable solo career, spent time in jail and has battled drug addiction. He’s had the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash use his songs, and like those two gentlemen, has bathed in the realities of a life lived raw.
These days, Earle is busy with an acting career, has a new book coming out, will soon embark on recording a new album with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, will soon become a father again and is busy touring in support of last year’s Townes.
Townes is far from just another studio album; it’s an honorable and honest tribute to his good friend Townes Van Zandt, a well-respected, influential singer-songwriter who passed away in 1997. His relationship to Van Zandt, he confesses, was foundational to his own work and continues to exert its influence to the present. A tribute album, however, took time to come to fruition.
“It was something I talked about doing for a long time and a lot of the planets lined up and this seemed like the right time to do it,” Earle says.
“He’s huge in my life. I named my oldest son after him. I distanced myself from him at times. I’m not somebody who fools himself into thinking that Townes was a misunderstood genius. I think the reason that more people don’t know about him is his fault. He had really good aim when it came to hitting his foot.
“He’s a lot of who I am as a songwriter and as an artist — just the idea that you could make art and not care about whether you made any money or not. I learned that from him really, really early on. It was okay to decide that you were going to engage in a craft but then try to figure out how you were going to make the most money with it, but what I learned from him is you had to make a decision whether you were going to make art or not; it was a conscious, active decision.”
Townes itself is art, a canvas replete with earthy undertones and an organic makeup that does justice to its 15 songs. Earle launches into the sizeable collection with the stripped-down, “Pancho and Lefty,” a folk-flavored tune slathered with his deep-throated warble and acoustic guitar strumming. You can see the dust rising in a Western sun-soaked heat wave as he sings, “Living on the road my friend/was gonna keep you free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron. Your breath’s as hard as kerosene."
The broadening canvas doesn’t end there; a poignant blend of bluegrass, blues, rock ‘n’ roll elements (including guitar work from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame), and country flourishes come into the auditory realm. The result is a collection of songs that vary stylistically but manage to come together into a cohesive, fitting tribute — one that echoes Van Zandt’s intimate performances.
“I recorded most of this stuff by recording guitar and vocal — solo versions of each song, and then adding the other instruments later, except for the three bluegrass tracks,” Earle says. “I was trying to get as close to the way I remember Townes performing these songs solo as I could and then add the other instruments later.”
“Colorado Girl,” one of the many notable moments on the disc, bleeds with emotion throughout its intimate arrangement and thrives from the live recording style. The yearning for a loved one is heard in every note that Earle sings in a personal, hope-filled fashion. When he emits the line, “I’m goin’ out to Denver/see if I can’t find/that lovin’ Colorado girl of mine,” it’s as if he is five feet away in a sawdust-filled roadhouse. The acoustic guitar work is raw and every string that buzzes serves as a constant reminder of the power of honesty and desire.
Interestingly enough, the Townes tour is slated to have its finale in Colorado — Boulder to be exact, and Earle couldn’t be more pleased.
“This is the last of these shows,” he says. “I am intentionally ending it in Boulder for a reason. It’s a really important place to Townes. Colorado, in general, is really important to Townes. He went to school in Boulder — that’s kind of where he first got out on his own. He spent a lot of time later in Crested Butte ’til he was basically banned from there. It’s pretty hard to get kicked out of Crested Butte, but Townes did.”
On the Bill: Steve Earle plays Boulder Theater on Feb. 2. Door open at 8 p.m. 21and over. Hayes Carll opens. Tickets are $28.50-34.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.