Given all he’s lived through, guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Earle has — and likely always will have — plenty of fodder for new songs. But his current release, “Townes,” from New West Records, is a collection of songs by his late friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt. Often praised — and recorded — by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and literally dozens of great Texas-based songwriters, Van Zandt created great art in his songs, but led a troubled life, living at the mercy of his friends, making hard liquor and heroin a part of his daily existence. Van Zandt fell and broke his hip and died at age 52 in 1997 near Nashville, Tennessee.
On his previous tours with a backing band, Earle typically attracts a cross section of audience members who are passionate about the blues, country or rock tunes he performs. “There was a lot of blues sensibility to what Townes used to do,” Earle says in a phone interview from his home in Woodstock, NY. He and his seventh wife, the talented contemporary folk singer Allison Moorer, also maintain an apartment in Greenwich Village, where admittedly, Earle feels more at home.
Earle performs solo in an acoustic show on Thursday, June 4, at McCarter Theater.
“What Townes, Guy Clark, and I all have in common is we saw Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion in Houston,” Earle syas, referring to the time he spent in Houston in the early 1970s, when both Lipscomb and Hopkins were still alive. “Townes was also the only one of us three that Lightnin’ Hopkins ever paid any attention to.”
“‘Brand New Companion’ [a track from Earle’s new album] is basically me being Townes instead of Townes being Lightnin’ Hopkins,” he says. The 15 tracks on “Townes” are all intimate and immediate, some with light drum accompaniment or light backing vocals from his wife Moorer. Incredibly, the album was recorded in a week’s time at Earle’s Greenwich Village apartment, using a recording engineer and putting in 11-hour days. Later, he embellished some tracks in a Nashville studio.
The two decades-long friendship between Van Zandt and Earle began to unravel when Earle went to prison in 1991 for his own heroin use, and it dawned on him one day that by hanging out further with Van Zandt, he was playing a key role in his mentor’s eventual premature demise. You might say Earle woke up, smelled the coffee, and embraced sobriety, while sadly Van Zandt, like many alcoholics or drug addicts, was never was able to get all the aspects of his life as a musician together. They remained reasonably close friends to the end of Van Zandt’s life. Earle led the procession at Van Zandt’s funeral. Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, from his third wife, will debut this August at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. The 20-something Justin Townes Earle has been building a solid grassroots following for his consistent, rootsy shows in bars and coffee houses around the U.S. Father and son live a dozen blocks from one another in lower Manhattan, when they’re not on the road.
Earle, the son of an air traffic controller father and housewife and real estate manager mother, was raised in San Antonio, Texas, 90 minutes southwest of Austin. He is the eldest of five siblings and has two younger brothers and two younger sisters. One sister, Stacey Earle, performed in the late 1990s at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and continues her work as a successful touring act. Perhaps because he was the eldest, he left home at 16 for Houston, where he’d heard tell he could find his idol, Townes Van Zandt.
“I hitchhiked over to Austin for Jerry Jeff Walker’s birthday party one year and Townes showed up at that, but I didn’t meet him until after I moved to Houston,” he says, noting the year was 1972, and he was a bright-eyed 17-year-old who wanted a career as a folk, blues, and country singer. “He didn’t really live anywhere, but he was there, in Houston, more than anywhere else. He showed up at one of my gigs in Houston, where there were about six people. And he basically heckled me between songs, asking me to play ‘Wabash Cannonball,’ which I basically did not know at that time.”
A few years later, all three — Van Zandt, Earle, and Guy Clark — would end up in Nashville, because they’d seen the success of Kris Kristofferson there. “A lot of us were in Nashville because of Kris Kristofferson,” Earle says, “and it was based on the idea that we could make a living as songwriters. I think of me, Guy Clark, and John Hiatt, some of us got record deals, some of us didn’t. My own record deal didn’t happen until late in the 1980s and that was because I was able to convince some people that I was country singer, for about 30 seconds there.”
Earle went through several song publishing company deals in Nashville before finally getting signed in 1985 to MCA Records. His critically praised debut, “Guitar Town,” was released in 1986 and that led to more extended touring for himself and his varying back-up bands, as well as a real source of income.
While Earle, having grown up in San Antonio with people like Texas rocker Doug Sahm as his role model, was not averse to playing rock and enjoyed blues and rockabilly. “I basically gravitated toward acoustic music, because I knew I couldn’t make my guitar sound like Jimi Hendrix.”
Earle’s rockabilly band at the time morphed into a country-rock band, “and I found myself getting back to the kind of songwriting that I was doing when I started out singing,” he says. “Now I’m still doing it and making an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist, after doing it for 45 years.”
Earle freely admits the biggest influence on both his guitar playing and his subsequent songwriting was Van Zandt. Appropriately, for the intimate nature of the material found on “Townes” — the album includes blues, ballads, and songs steeped in the bluegrass and folk tradition — Earle, who will celebrate 15 years of sobriety in September, will perform solo at McCarter. “I came from coffee houses and I preferred to perform by myself until I was in my late 20s,” he says. “I never really had a band until the last couple of years before I started making records.”
Given that Van Zandt was such a towering influence in his life — not to mention the lives of dozens of other musicians Van Zandt got to know — how was Earle able to narrow down his selection process of classic Van Zandt compositions for the purposes of a 15-song tribute album? “I started with a short list of 28 songs and I only made my decisions about what to leave off as we went along, but as soon as I’ve got four or five songs together, I’m one of those older people who still likes to make albums, to find a way to make the songs fit together as one piece of work,” he says.
“Putting together an album is like a Rubik’s cube, you keep moving the pieces around until you get them right,” he says of the song selections for “Townes,” which include classics like “Pancho and Lefty,” and blues tunes like “Brand New Companion” and “White Freight Liner Blues.”
Unlike Kristofferson, who was at McCarter two months ago and admitted he’s still getting used to the idea of touring without a band, Earle started out his career without a band. And frankly, the songs on “Townes” don’t easily lend themselves to a band. So the evening’s concert will be a heartfelt collection of stories and songs about the late Van Zandt, from one of his best friends. Posthumously, Van Zandt has been the subject of at least one biography and several retrospective album and CD boxed sets.
Says Earle: “I’m comfortable playing with bands, but with this record, it’s a pretty intimate record, it would be really hard to play with musicians and do songs from this record at live shows.”
Steve Earle, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Thursday, June 4, 8 p.m. Solo acoustic show featuring pop, rock, bluegrass, folk, and rock. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.