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For the Sake of the Song

Kasey Anderson  |  February 2, 2010

Photo by Anna Foster

Watching Steve Earle perform is like taking a masters class in what it means to be a songwriter. Watching Steve Earle perform the songs of Townes Van Zandt, and candidly discuss his relationship with Van Zandt, is like being let in on some kind of mythical secret. To use words like "arresting," or "enthralling" would be to grossly understate how significant it was to me - as a songwriter, as a listener, as an amateur musicologist - to watch Earle perform the songs of his friend and mentor last November.

At the time, I was living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, playing four nights a week at the Local Cure, an Irish pub frequented almost exclusively by men and women from the American Armed Forces (as both a base and R&R hotel are located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen). While the gig allowed me the opportunity to live for a year in Europe, tour frequently, and eat for free every night, there was more than the requisite amount of audience pandering, which is something I'm extremely uncomfortable with. I am a long way removed from open mic nights and cover gigs, so to be inserted back into a situation where it was a necessity to adopt the "customer is always right" mindset was a little jarring, to say the least. Point is, when you're playing an hour of original tunes, and then fielding audience requests for an hour, four nights a week, it can be easy to get "off message." As I drove from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Nurnberg the day after Thanksgiving to see Earle and the always phenomenal Joe Pug, I was sufficiently "off message."

Anyone who has seen Earle perform will confirm that he is A) an immensely commanding and gifted performer and B) the smartest guy in the room, no matter how big said room may be. Earle's intelligence, his passion, the depth and breadth of his talent, all are on display without constraint when he performs. Such is the case whether Earle is performing his own songs, or those of his mentors and peers, but watching him trace his own steps backwards through time, via Van Zandt's catalog, there is another aspect of Earle on display: his vulnerability. This is the man who coined the phrase "Hardcore Troubadour," but to see and hear him discuss the impact Van Zandt had on him personally and artistically is to see Earle stripped as bare as he has ever been, perhaps even moreso than on any of his intensely confessional post-prison albums. Perhaps that was the point of Earle undertaking Townes, his tribute album to Van Zandt, and this tour:to remind his audience that Van Zandt was not just an indelible and unparalleled artist, he was an indelible and unparalleled man.

Last Sunday night, Earle won a Grammy for Townes, the culmination of a year spent staring at his mentor's ghost night in and night out. Earle has said on more than one occasion that all of it - the album, the tour, the Grammy - has been a gift from Townes. Indeed, but it has not been merely a gift to Earle, it has been a gift to his audience, and to his fellow artists, who perhaps - or, in my case, certainly - needed reminding that, as artists, we are writing for the sake of the song.

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