Steve Earle pays homage to Townes Van Zandt at Pantages

Welcome to the first edition of Are You Ready For the Country, a new country music column written by Nikki Miller. For this week's column, Nikki attended the Steve Earle show last night at the Pantages Theatre. Steve Earle kicked off his set at Pantages with a li'l talk of politics. In his song "Fort Worth Blues," Earle sings that Paris never was his kind of town. But Thursday night in that big ol' fancy theater, Steve got honest.

"I've never applied so much poetic license to a song because... Paris is my kind of town, especially the last decade or so. Apparently I've been pissing all the right people off."

The right people can be interpreted literally. Earle is probably known as much for his far-left-of-center politics as for his music, which is perhaps the reason he's always been viewed as an outsider to the Nashville establishment.

And so it's appropriate that Earle would find an idol in another outsider, Townes Van Zandt, to whom he pays tribute on his latest record, Townes, a collection of Van Zandt covers.

At his Pantages show, Earle played an acoustic set, mixing old and new songs with Van Zandt covers and a whole heap of storytelling. Earle managed to keep Van Zandt's essence alive, not only in the simple and true quality with which he covered his songs, but also in the stories he told of their friendship. In this, Earle very much played the part of oral historian in a way no book or documentary on Van Zandt could ever do.

But true to form, this night wasn't dedicated entirely to Van Zandt. Earle spent as much time on politics and American life as fans would expect him to. He dedicated "City of Immigrants" (from his 2007 album Washington Square Serenade) to Mr. Kim, the man who owns the deli on his New York City block. Mr. Kim learned English as a second language, then Spanish in order to communicate with his Mexican immigrant employees, and according to Earle he speaks 'em all better than any of us can. As always, Earle's worldview and position on politics were integral to the night's mood, though in contrast to his last two visits to Minneapolis, Earle remarked that we're now living in a country that looks and feels entirely different.

Idolatry and politics aside, the most bittersweet moment of the night was when Earle told the story, as he often does in prefacing the song, of life as a father on the road. He dedicated his classic song "Little Rock 'n Roller" to his younger son, who just today had a baby daughter, making Earle a grandfather. On record, this song has always seemed a little trite to me - the story of a trucker's life as translated to a musician and his bus. But live and in person, you feel the song's intent--a touring troubadour's good night message to his child, and as such it became one of the more moving parts of the evening, a story of unfulfilled obligations to which we can all relate.

Now, for better or for worse, I can't help but mention a band firmly within the contemporary Nashville establishment when talking about Steve Earle--a little female country duo called Sugarland. Driving through the winding hills outside Deadwood, South Dakota, my younger siblings were blaring Sugarland's song "Steve Earle" over the car stereo. This tongue-in-cheek little ditty details Earle's tenuous love life--another quality he shares with Van Zandt - with a chorus of "Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me, I promise I won't take a dime when it comes my time to leave." Having never heard the song, I chuckled at the concept and explained to my nineteen-year-old brother who Steve Earle is, my brother then leaving with plans to check the guy out.


At tonight's show, I found myself thinking that just as this Top 40 country duo was likely introducing a new breed of fans to Steve Earle, with every live performance on this tour Earle is introducing the late Townes Van Zandt to scores of uninitiated listeners who otherwise may have never come across him. This also led me to ask the question: Who will be the next troubled troubadour in country to die too young? Problem is, we likely won't know much of them until they do.