Steve Earle has paid tribute to Townes Van Zandt often over the years. He's recorded a couple Van Zandt songs - most effectively, Tecumseh Valley on "Train a Comin'" - and he dedicated the moving Ft. Worth Blues to Van Zandt. There's the business of his son's middle name and the oft-quoted testimonial about Van Zandt's song writing that involves Bob Dylan's coffee table. But this collection of 15 Van Zandt songs has the feel of a closing statement.
The cuts that make the deepest impressions are the higher profile songs from Van Zandt's catalog like Pancho and Lefty and Loretta, and with the exception of an even moodier Lungs, the arrangements tend to stick to the straightforward. Ace pickers such as Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott are on board along with Earle's wife Allison Moorer, providing lovely harmonies. And Justin Townes Earle swaps verses with his pop on Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold. But at its core, this is a summit of Earle's voice and guitar and the razor-sharp and razor's-edge words of his mentor. Reviewers have questioned the need for this record when many folks, if not most, would agree that the definitive versions of nine of these songs already appear on Van Zandt's "Live at the Old Quarter." Maybe it's just Earle's desire to use his survivor's lungs to breathe these songs, which are too good not to be resurrected periodically, back to life. "Where you've been is good and gone," offers To Live Is to Fly, Van Zandt's crowning achievement and the most compelling track on "Townes." Yeah, but that doesn't mean you can't give a nod to those who came before.