The best thing about Townes, Steve Earle’s tribute to his old mentor, the late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt, is that it’s full of Van Zandt’s work. The worst thing: It’s irrelevant.
Only a few of the songs actively detract from either musician’s canon, like the ones that indulge Earle’s recent preoccupation with noxious canned beats and effects, or the ones where Earle is doing a weird strangled thing with his voice. Many of the tracks are decent—relatively good, unadorned interpretations like “Colorado Girl,” “Marie,” and “Rake”—but they still just kind of sit there.
Yes, it’s true that a great deal of Van Zandt’s studio albums are embarrassingly overproduced and orchestrated, but they stand up, to a degree, because they have the enduring virtue of his voice: an easy, unaffected baritone in his younger years, slowly deteriorating into a harsh, alcoholic, raven-croak. Ironically, Earle can’t keep his own hands off the studio toys.
And yes, some covers of Van Zandt songs, by Earle or others, are magnificent and illuminating. None, however, can achieve the honesty and immediacy of Van Zandt baring his own pain.
Earle is better than most; Van Zandt was a genius. What can the former do in the latter’s shadow? Why bother?