Considered by many to be the best Americana songwriter, living or dead, Townes Van Zandt certainly never made it the way Steve Earle has. But on Townes, Earle mines Van Zandt's prolific songbook to pay homage as only a true student of the master could. Shrewdly observing that Van Zandt's work couldn't stand (and doesn't need) much tinkering, Earle keeps "Pancho and Lefty" and "White Freight Liner Blues" solidly true to Van Zandt's originals. When Earle does depart from the Townes formula, though, the results are magnificent; "No Place To Fall" and "Loretta" have a lilting Irish elegance, and "Brand New Companion" also pays homage to Lightnin' Hopkins, whom both Earle and Van Zandt studied like biblical scholars scouring the Dead Sea Scrolls. The dark and tragic "Marie" pours out of Earle like a deathbed confession, and the poetic "Rake" seems to have a timeless connection with the ancient. Townes's clever poker paean "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" is putty in Earle's hands, and "(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria" is the type of dazzling love song that has become a signature part of Earle's own repertoire. Townes is undoubtedly a true-north homage done with loving care and reverence, but by the time it's over, listeners realize just how much influence van Zandt had on Earle's own writing, delivery and, ultimately, his higher-profile career.
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