Singer-songwriter Steve Earle is about to release what he says "may be the best record I've ever done." The difficult part in admitting that to himself is that he didn't write any of the songs on the album.

'Townes,' due out May 12 on New West Records, is Earle's tribute to his friend and mentor, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997, following years of drug and alcohol abuse. Steve was a teenager living in Texas when he first met Townes, whose iconic song catalog includes 'Pancho and Lefty,' a No. 1 hit in 1983 for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and 'If I Needed You,' a 1981 duet by Don Williams and Emmylou Harris. In addition to befriending Townes, Steve's circle of songwriting pals included Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker.

"There were a lot of really good songwriters in Texas when I was growing up," says the man whose 'Guitar Town' album shook up Nashville and helped usher in the neo-traditionalist country movement of the mid-'80s. "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."

Among the memories Earle has of his late friend is watching him play a drunken game of Russian roulette. He admired -- and related to Van Zandt so much that he named his son, songwriter Justin Townes Earle, after him. Yet Steve says one of the main reasons he chose to record the album now was so that he could finish writing a novel he's been working on for quite a while.

"I started the novel six years ago," he tells Billboard, "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."

Something Steve Earle said about Townes Van Zandt a long time ago continues to be a source of much discussion. The exact quote: "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."

"I was asked for a blurb [for a Townes album], and that's what I said," he explains. "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 'Pancho and Lefty.'

As for the novel he's working on, Steve says it's the story of "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."

With a sense that the novel may prove as controversial as some of his politically-charged songs and public commentary on issues he's passionate about, including abolishing capital punishment, Steve says, "I may get my ass kicked for this, but no one can say I'm not going for it." His own life marked by tremendous success as an artist and marred by his own battle with heroin addiction, and several months behind bars on drug charges, Steve Earle doesn't see his late friend as a tragic figure, in spite of the fact that Van Zandt died at the age of 52.

"What happened to him was certainly tragic, but I don't think most of the people who knew him saw him as tragic," says Steve. "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."

Interestingly, Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt both died on New Year's Day, 44 years apart.

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