revised 13/Sept/97 and 21/Jan/08
Questions about the life and music of Townes Van Zandt have gone on for decades: why is
such a great and often magical talent so unknown?; has he wasted his life to liquor, gambling, and
rambling, or did his songwriting depend on such a lifestyle?; what is his essential output on record? I offer some suggestions to some of these questions, but not answers. Take in some of these albums and decide for yourself.
Townes passed away Jan 1, 1997, due to chronic alcoholism and specifically to complications after hip surgery, to the dismay but not shock to many hard-core fans and friends. His energy and health had been on the decline for years, but his bright talent that I consider genius projected through all his music through the very end. If you are somewhat new to Townes-ology, one good strategy is to start with his earliest recordings, working your way through his career in nearly chronological order.
One album that I go back to again and again is his self-titled third album, "Townes Van Zandt" (1970). Like many of his albums, this one is flawless. All nine songs are first rank; the
lyrics offer a cross between the best storytelling country-folk of Hank Williams and the
psychedelic imagery of the late 60's. Some works by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter are directly
comparable. There is also a temptation to compare this one with the best works by Nick Drake. The album works subtly as a theme/concept effort, not to the degree of his second
release, "Our Mother the Mountain" though. The theme that is delivered by this work goes
something like this: "Life is fleeting, so walk delicately on the earth, life is hard, don't be bitter,
just get on with it". The subject matter revolves around relationships with women, mostly about
leaving them, and being down and out: bad luck, bad habits like drinking and train hopping. All
this is paradoxically uplifting. Townes is both honest and convincing in sharing his hard living, so
that we can connect and be lifted up just a little, which is saying a lot. Fans on the internet have
said that he is the real deal - there is no showman, no attitude or false personality, just a genuine
person who happens to be a folk troubadour.
That sense of groundedness is revealed in this album released back in 1970, as it was in concert, if
you ever had the chance to see him, although he was erratic at times. I saw him 9 times between
1990 and 1995, and each show was a gem. But the quality of production of this album serves the
music perfectly; strings and winds are orchestrated at the pace and sentiments of the lyrics and
Townes vocal delivery: although most of these songs were recorded on other studio and live
albums, these are definitive. Don't pass on this one.
The recording just before his self-titled album, called "Our Mother the Mountain" (1969), is even
better, although it is the more heavily produced of the two. Many of Townes' fans prefer the
stark solo guitar live sound such as on "Live at the Old Quarter" (recorded in 1973). But this is a
superb production effort. Every note of each instrument complements the intent of Townes' voice
and lyrics. As with Dylans best, such as "Blood On the Tracks", and "John Wesley Harding", the
instruments, including strings, flute, guitar, and harmonica, provide the texture and phrasing that
extends the emotional range and intensity that no single voice could offer, including Townes',
which serves the music just fine without drawing excessive attention to itself. There is the "hit"
song "Tecumseh Valley", often performed by Nanci Griffith, which she usually introduces by
saying that Caroline in this song was a kind of reverse role-model for her, having helped her stay
out of trouble many a time. Well, Townes version has greater emotional impact, perhaps because
he has lived through hard times of a not-too-different sort than Caroline's. The album has a cumulative emotional effect, covering a range from despair, loss and suffering, to hope, redemption and even joy. Back in 1969 when Jack Clement was working with Townes in the studio, they perfected this album as a kind of "Folk epic" concept album, even if it was mainly a collection of songs like most albums.
Had these tunes actually been Country or Rock-tinged, rather than merely Folk (or unclassifiable),
perhaps these songs would have found their way into the major Country-Folk-Rock fusion going
on, such as with Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and Ian &
Silvia (Check out "Great Speckled Bird"). As a result, Townes remained essentially
"undiscovered" until Emmylou Harris released "Pancho & Lefty" in 1977, and "If I Needed You"
in 1981, followed by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard making a hit from P&L in 1982. Back to
1969, and we have a studio production masterpiece that outsells Townes' other albums at least in
Europe, but it has been nearly unrecognized in the US. See also the impact this album had on Glenn Christmas: it matches my feelings well. Instead of ranking a Van Morrison record slightly higher on my list of absolute favorites, however I might reach for American Beauty by the Grateful Dead or perhaps Greatest Hits Volume II by Bob Dylan. Its a toss-up.
Now on to Townes best live record, "Live At the Old Quarter" (1977) was from a prime run of
shows in July 1973 at the famous Folk venue; in Houston, Texas, (one of Townes many homes
over the years), and is the only widely available recording of Townes during his 20's, his only
prolific decade. In fact, he wrote and recorded an average of one song every 36 days during his
prolific years (69 songs between 1968-1974), whereas that productivity slumped to only one song
every 335 days during the remaining 22 years of his life (24 songs between 1975-1996; these
numbers calculated from the 1997 version of "A guide to Townes Van Zandt", and do
not include the final 3 or 4 songs recorded from his final recording sessions just days before he
died). So this guy only wrote 93 songs? These are 93 of the best songs I know; they will be
performed in folk clubs, bars and around campfires for as long as any Bob Dylan song, maybe
longer. How does the quality of Townes' songwriting compare through the years? It was almost
uniformly excellent with only a 3 or 4 "throw away" or "filler" songs in all those years. And 20 of
these great songs can be found on the current CD version of "Live at the Old
Quarter", plus one cover. However, on the vinyl issue, now several years out of print in the USA, there are 7 additional songs. A complete version was re-released on CD in 2002 but has not remained available since, try Jeanene Van Zandt's Website. Whether complete or not, this album has great unadorned sound, straight from Townes and his superb finger-picking and chord-strumming guitar, a most respectful audience, and the feeling that something special is happening. Here are a few samples of Townes' songwriting:
"You built your tower strong and tall, don't you know its got to fall someday" - Tower Song
"You're gonna drown tomorrow, if you cry too many tears for yesterday" - Only Him or Me
"If I had a nickel I'd find a game, if I won a dollar I'd make it rain,
If it rained an ocean I'd drink it dry, and lay me down dissatisfied" - Rex's Blues
"Gather up the gold you've found, you fool it's only moonlight,
If you try to take it home, your hands will turn to butter,
You better leave this dream alone, try to find another" - Lungs
Realizing that Townes' essential material is ALL his material (including many cover songs by
folks like Lightnin Hopkins and Hank Williams, as on the album Road Songs), Old Quarter album can be considered a great
sampler, not the whole enchilada. As for other live albums, they are all very good if not quite as
captivating. They also contain considerable redundancy; for example there are only 5 songs on Rear View Mirror not also on Old Quarter. Similarly, only 3 songs on Live and Obscure are not
on Old Quarter. But the arrangements sound quite different and all are worthwhile. Rear View
Mirror has been getting very favorable reviews for its 1997 re-release on the Sugar Hill label,
which assures wider US distribution than did the Sundown label of Austin (released in 1993).
Rear View Mirror does include nice live accompaniment by Danny Rowland on guitar and Owen
Cody on fiddle. But what the recent reviews all miss is the fact that this set was recorded back in
1979, hence the similarity to the material on the 1973-recorded Old Quarter album. If you want to hear any of the newer songs live, you can pick up 1985's Live and Obscure, 1990's Rain On a Conga Drum, 1997's Abnormal (limited released in Germany), or 1997's The Highway Kind (Sugar Hill).
The Normal Records release of the Highway Kind, Townes last authorized release (but consider the
4-cd anthology that as of 2008 has met its 20th anniversary of anticipation, excepting the "Texas Rain - The Texas Hill Country Recordings" single CD release from 2001), changes the song order
and adds 2 extra songs. Overall, it succeeds where the Sugar Hill, 15 song version falls a bit short.
From the very first cut (talking of the Normal version now), "Lost Highway" to the very last, "At
My Window", with significant vocal and Harmonica accompaniment (partly in German, Viennese dialect) by Kurt Ostbahn,
this album is both a fitting and emotional farewell from a great artist. Did Townes consciously
know that he was not long for this world? Probably. Was this release intended to be cast as a
good-bye gift? I hate to think so, but the evidence is there. First, he takes some of his most
heart-felt performances of the 1990's regardless of songwriter and paints the story of his life.
Next, he makes a coherent theme that provide more than a sum of the individual songs
that invites repeated listening (although requiring a mood to match). The result is a gift to all
true fans of this world-weary, self deprecating, under-achieving musical genius. Even the perhaps
worst performance on the record, Darcy Farrow (written by Steve Gillette, another great yet
obscure songwriter), reveals on close listening how near and dear the actual lyrics were to
Townes, he could have broken down in tears several times during the song. My objection at
first was that the beautiful melody of the song is downplayed to the point of almost talking-blues delivery. With repeated listening, the song holds up well, as does the entire album.
When my own brother asked for my recommendation between Highway Kind and Rear View Mirror, I
told him that RVM is the more consistent and higher quality overall. But HK, as a farewell from
Townes, cannot be passed up either. If you chanced to see him in the 90's, whether he needed help on
the stage or not, this recording captures a physical frailty in evidence the times I saw him,
contributing in a cumulative effect how mortal, he, and we all, are, and that life must be lived, the
dice must be thrown, and the song must go on. There were times near the end when Townes almost could not get through a song, and times when he had to give up, with everyone in the audience rooting for
him, wishing he could rise above his health problems. He usually did, and gave it his all. Oh yes, my brother ended up with Highway Kind, and he loves it too.
Other recommended studio albums include "At My Window" (1987), "No Deeper Blue" (1994),
"Nashville Sessions" (recorded in the mid 70's but lost until 1995), "Flying Shoes" (1978), in fact
there are no bad albums by this musician. They are all great, including "For the Sake
of the Song" (1968), which Townes himself was embarrassed about, and which sounds somewhat
dated, but has the indelible stamp of genius on it.
Fans have long anticipated a 4-CD box set, officially announced but facing yet further delays, and
we are talking more than 10 years of waiting now. As all songs have been previously released with as
many as 47 guest musicians, this is going to be the ultimate anthology, and it is slated to be called
"Newology" although "Townes-ology" might be more appropriate.
In summary, Townes second and third studio albums are among his best, and Live at the Old Quarter is a rich collection of Townes live in his prime, while the other live releases all have different perspectives if not entirely different songs.