Steve Earle Recalls Buddy Townes Van Zandt


Steve Earle (l) and Townes Van Zandt photo courtesy of New West Records.

June 4, 2009 — Steve Earle was trying to make his life a little easier, and he ended up with a Top 10 album in the process.

Steve’s been working on a novel, and he discovered that writing songs was too much of a distraction. So he decided to make an album out of songs already written by his late friend, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Titled Townes, it features 15 covers of titles Townes developed during his career, including "Pancho And Lefty," best known as a 1983 hit by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard.

The album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard country albums chart, a great showing for a CD with music that’s not being supported by radio play or by a video. It’s particularly interesting because Steve, who’s known as an incisive writer himself, penned none of the songs on the disc.

"I've sold more records in a week with this thing than I've sold in a long time," he told The Charleston Gazette. "Which hurts a little."

Steve was a mere 16 years old when he first met Townes, who he viewed as a mentor. That teacher-student relationship gave Townes the ability to play a joke or two. At one point, Townes discovered Steve had never read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It was, Townes insisted, essential literature, so he loaned Steve a copy of that book as well as Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace. Steve read them both, and afterward, Townes asked a slew of questions about Tolstoy’s massive work.

"It turned out Townes never read War And Peace," Steve said. "He just thought I should."

"I was basically a member of a cult," he added. "I did whatever Townes told me to do."

Two of Steve’s projects, The Revolution Starts ... Now and Washington Square Serenade, won Grammy Awards this decade for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. If Townes is to qualify, it will be branded as either Contemporary Folk or Americana. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has split the honor into two categories. The Academy made several other changes effective with the next voting season, including the elimination of the Best Polka Album honor.