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Q&A: Earle takes songwriting break to honor Van Zandt

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Steve Earle knew the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt so well that he watched him play Russian roulette one night when he was drunk and admires him so much that he named his son after him.

Steve Earle opens the "Bring Em Home Now!" concert in New York Monday, March 20, 2006. REUTERS/Erin Siegal

After establishing himself as an important new voice with a string of late-‘80s albums that blended roots-rock and country, Earle struggled with his own substance abuse problems. But he came back in the mid-‘90s, then drew controversy and critical acclaim with political material like “Jerusalem” and “The Revolution Starts ... Now.”

Van Zandt, who died in 1997, never became famous as a performer. But other singers had hits with his compositions -- most famously, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded a version of his outlaw ballad, “Pancho and Lefty,” that became a No. 1 country hit in 1983 -- and his own versions hold up well enough that Fat Possum Records recently reissued some of his albums.

Earle honors Van Zandt’s influence on “Townes,” which comes out May 12 on New West Records, by playing his songs in the same stark style in which they were originally recorded.

“Townes was, literally, my mentor,” says Earle, who picked up Van Zandt’s talent for songwriting and his propensity for hard living. “This may be the best record I’ve ever done,” he adds. “And that hurts my feelings because I’m a singer-songwriter.”

Billboard: Why did you decide to record an album of Townes Van Zandt songs?

Steve Earle: I did it now to facilitate finishing my novel -- I started the novel six years ago and writing songs for this album would take a few (more) months out of that process. I had thought of doing this a few times, but I talked myself out of it every time because I’m a singer-songwriter and I had something I wanted to say.

Billboard: Why Van Zandt instead of, say, Woody Guthrie?

Earle: I didn’t know Woody Guthrie. I was in Texas, and by the time I was 17 I knew Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. There were a lot of really good songwriters in Texas when I was growing up, and the people you can sit in the same room with are going to affect you more than the people you just hear on records. Every single one of these tracks, my heart rate went up when I did it. And I realized that of course I have an emotional stake in these songs -- this is the reason I became a songwriter.

Billboard: The story goes that you met Van Zandt when he heckled you when you were performing at the Old Quarter in Houston.

Earle: I saw him without a mic between us at Jerry Jeff Walker’s 33rd birthday party about two weeks before. He walked in at about 3 in the morning with a beautiful buckskin jacket on, started a craps game and lost every dime he had and his jacket. I didn’t get up the nerve to talk to him. Then I was playing the Old Quarter and he turned up.

Billboard: Are you surprised that many people today see him as a tragic figure?

Earle: What happed to him was certainly tragic, but I don’t think most of the people who knew him saw him as tragic. I was originally just as impressed with all the dark, scary alcohol and drug use as anybody, but pretty quickly I realized that all of that got in the way of what was important about him.

Billboard: You made a comment about him that became famous: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Earle: I was asked for a blurb (for a Van Zandt album), and that’s what I said. It was literally a sticker. Do I believe that he was a better writer than Bob Dylan? No. Do I believe he deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Bob Dylan? Yes. And I think Bob Dylan does, too. I was opening for Dylan in 1988, and the first night I was on the tour Bob played “Poncho and Lefty.”

Billboard: What’s your novel about?

Earle: It’s my second book -- it’s about a defrocked doctor who’s a heroin addict who lives in San Antonio in 1963. Ten years before, he was traveling with Hank Williams when he died. And Hank Williams’ ghost shows up. The short answer is it’s about Hank Williams’ ghost and heroin and Roe v. Wade. I may get my ass kicked for this, but no one can say I’m not going for it.