Aftermath: Steve Earle at Cactus Music

Video by Craig Hlavaty

Guided from the office by Cactus Music general manager Quinn Bishop, Steve Earle strode by within a foot of me. He had his game face on. I remembered seeing that look on him in the '80s, especially the night he and The Dukes tore the roof off Richmond venue Xcess. Then and now, Earle comes to the job to work.

Judging from his night-owl pallor, Earle probably doesn't give his best performances at 5 p.m. on a muggy May Saturday afternoon. But he delighted a wrist-banded crowd of several hundred with great songs, funny, telling anecdotes, and a raised-in-Texas attitude.

In town to promote his brand-new New West album Townes, Earle, never one to play by the book, freely mixed his own tunes with mentor Townes Van Zandt's material, surprising many in the crowd by opening with his own "Taneytown." Without saying a word, Earle left no doubt of the effect of Van Zandt's writing and approach on his own body of work.

Earle drew cheers from the crowd when he drifted quietly into his own "Ft. Worth Blues," obviously aware that it contained the understated poetic nod to one of his and Van Zandt's ancestral musical homes: "Houston really ain't that bad a town, so I hung around with the Ft. Worth blues."

Telling the crowd that the day before he started recording the project, he had a short list of 28 songs which he whittled to 15, Earle said he knew which song he had to start with, "Pancho and Lefty":

"It's like your first day in jail. You have to walk out to the yard and pick out the biggest, meanest guy there and hit him. Then you can keep your radio."

Leading up to Van Zandt's "Brand New Companion," Earle commented on Houston's rich musical heritage and the over-arching influence of Lightnin' Hopkins on his and Van Zandt's peers.

"I'm part of a shrinking group of guys - Guy Clark, Frank Davis, Wrecks Bell, just a few others - who remember seeing Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb in the same room together. And that was right here in Houston, Texas."

"We were all watching Lightnin', but Lightnin' was paying attention to what Townes was doing," Earle laughed as he described "Brand New Companion" as "me doing Townes doing Lightnin'." When it was over, he played to the crowd.

"It's fashionable for people to mouth off about Houston," he said, "but we know they're just pussies, right?"

A fan called out, "Why are you here if you don't have a show?"

"We haven't started our tour for this record yet," Earle explained, "and we won't be back around here until the Crighton in Conroe in June. It might not have mattered with another record, but with this one I felt like I needed to come down here and do this."

Nearing the end, Earle essayed Van Zandt's "Lungs" - which Van Zandt had instructed "should be screamed" - before closing with another tip of the hat to "my mentor." Introducing crowd favorite "Copperhead Road," Earle simply confessed, "I hesitate to play this song right after that last one because it's gonna blow my cover."

It proved a noble tribute, and made a fine ending to a mellow afternoon of music with two of our musical sons - one present in person, the other in spirit - who changed the landscape of American song.

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William Michael Smith