Collected Reviews - A Far Cry From Dead By Townes Van Zandt

as posted to about-townes mail-list.


  1. Philadelphia Weekly - June 23 1999
  2. No Depression - July 1999
  3. Billboard - July 10 1999
  4. The San Francisco Chronicle - June 27 1999
  5. Country Music - August/September 1999
  6. San Jose Mercury News - July 6 1999
  7. The Philadelphia Inquirer
  8. Country Music Roundup, UK - July 1999
  9. Hot Press (Ireland) - July 21 1999 (Vol 23 #13)
  10. Seattle Weekly

From the June 23 issue of Philadelphia Weekly:
> Townes Van Zandt -- A Far Cry From Dead
> If Townes Van Zandt had received even half the adulation elsewhere as he
> did in his home state, big labels far and wide would've been scrambling
> for the decade-old DAT recordings that comprise the bittersweet whole of A
> Far Cry From Dead.  Instead, Van Zandt's widow, Jeanene, was the one
> scrambling -- in her efforts to come up with the funds to do her husband's
> demos justice.  Now, some two years after his death, Van Zandt's
> deceptively vast legacy finally has its fitting postmortem statement:  a
> graceful, low-key collection that revisits 11 weather-beaten gems and
> tacks on a pair of previously unreleased keepers.  For the faithful, Van
> Zandt's death was inevitable -- maybe even a relief.  Battered by chronic
> alcohol abuse, his body failed him at age 52, and the performances he
> could manage in the few years before his passing were often sad, drunken
> affairs.  It's cruelly ironic, then, that his deterioration lends a spent
> poingnancy to Far Cry renditions of "Pancho and Left" (a country hit for
> Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983), "Tower Song" and "Greensboro
> Woman."  Meanwhile, the new "Sanitarium Blues" is as disturbing as it is
> beautiful, it's grim prognosis leavened, like the rest of the album, by
> the sympathetic accompaniment of the backup musicians hired to fill out
> the acoustic tracks (which were recorded at a neighbor's home studio).
> For a bulk of A Far Cry From Dead, Van Zandt sings as if the life is
> draining out of him right there on the spot.  And while, in the end, he
> may not have gone down swinging, he did leave a lot of bodies in his wake
> -- many of them his own.
> -- Hobart Rowland


From No Depression:

"Like Dock Boggs, Townes Van Zandt was obsessed with death.  Both men
were shadowed by their own mortality, obsessing over it and collapsing
under it time and again in song.  Both men ran from death in their early
years, but accepted its haunting abide later in life.  On Boggs' last
recordings (cut during the early '60s folk revivial and reissued last
year), the man whose piercing delivery once seemed to give voice to
death itself had stopped running from it.  Which made for a less
compelling listen, but a more stable psyche.

One has to wonder whether Van Zandt ever enjoyed such respite.  His
flirtations with -- and prognostications of -- his demise are legendary,
and all too resolute.  Friends of the singer swear he often spoke of his
own death, predicting it would come at 52, the same age his father was
when he passed.  Some say he even claimed he would die on New Year's
Day, the same day his idol, Hank Williams died.  He was right on both

A Far Cry From Dead is a posthumous collection that presents new
versions of several of Van Zandt's best songs.  He cut the vocals for
these tracks at a neighbor's home studio earlier this decade; the
instrumental accompaniment was added after his death by some of
Nasvhille's hottest pickers.  Listening to these songs, it's doubtful
Van Zandt would have agreed with their heavy-handed arrangements, but
it's equally doubtful he would have had the energy to change them.  His
updated readings of timeless tunes such as "For the Sake of the Song"
and "Waitin' Round to Die" don't offer the tidy epilogue that Boggs'
latter-day work provides.  It's not that Van Zandt's talents had faded
or grown cozy -- quite to the contrary, his voice took on an aged charm
that, if anything, seems even more befitting the source material -- it's
just that he still sounds so damned inconsolable.  When he sings "I
could die in the morning, ain't no one would know," you have to believe
him, even if you know it isn't true.

A Far Cry From Dead contains two previously unissued Van Zandt
compositions, "Sanitarium Blues" and "Squash."  The former has the
makings of a Townes classic:  A devastating tale of a family half-wit's
struggle with an uncaring mental institution, it features Van Zandt's
vocals vari-speeded down to an eeried slur, a brilliant touch.  But the
accompaniement is completely afoul of Van Zandt's intended tone.  Out of
his hands, "Sanitarium" becomes a pale, fatuous rocker.

"Squash" is a more humorous tale, in the traditon of Vandt's classic
"Talking' Karate Blues."  It's Townes at his most as lighthearted -- and
maybe that's the best epilogue of all. It's certainly the easiest to

Matt Hanks


From the July 10 issue of Billboard:
> TOWNES VAN ZANDT -- A Far Cry From Dead
> In death, legendary Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt may have
> finally gotten what eluded him throughout his recording career:
> production matching his extraordinary but quirky talent.  After his death
> in 1997, his widow, Jeanene (who serves as executive producer here),
> remembered a shoebox full of DAT vocal/guitar tapes that her husband had
> casually recorded over the course of several years at a neighbor's home
> studio.  Now, with full studio production by Eric Paul and musical
> contributions by a studio full of top-caliber musicians accompanying those
> rough tapes, Van Zandt eclipses the often-haphazard production that marked
> much of his earlier work.  Eleven of his better-known songs are here, plus
> the previously unreleased tracks "Squash," and "Sanatarium Blues."  Never
> has introspective depression sounded so good and been so uplifting.


From The San Francisco Chronicle (6/27/99):

link to orig article here

                 Two Years After Death, Van Zandt
                 May Have His Definitive Album

                 James Sullivan, Julene Snyder, Lee Hildebrand, Gary Graff, j.
                 poet, David Rubien, Michael Ansaldo, Colin Berry

                 Sunday, June 27, 1999

                 4 stars

                 TOWNES VAN ZANDT

                 A Far Cry From Dead Arista/Austin, $16.97

                 Townes Van Zandt died clutching a vodka bottle on
                 New Year's Day 1997, 44 years to the day after
                 Hank Williams beat a path to the great roadhouse in
                 the sky. Don DeLillo could not have scripted a
                 more novelistic finish to the sadness of this particular

                 If Van Zandt's name is only vaguely recognizable to
                 a roots-music fans, try these on for size: Willie
                 Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett,
                 Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris. All of them hold Van
                 Zandt in the highest regard.

                 His voice, homely and sometimes less than reliable,
                 kept this black sheep of an aristocratic Texas clan
                 from realizing any hit records in his 30-year career.
                 It was his potent songwriting that attracted Van
                 Zandt such a devoted following, even as he was
                 knocking around in gutters and dive bars.

                 ``A Far Cry From Dead'' consists of 13 demo
                 tracks Van Zandt entrusted to his wife Jeanene
                 several years ago. After his death, she brought the
                 tapes to producer Eric Paul. Together they hired a
                 group of studio musicians to flesh out the music --
                 spare new versions of Van Zandt benchmarks such
                 as ``For the Sake of the Song'' and ``Pancho and
                 Lefty,'' the latter a No. 1 country record for Nelson
                 and Haggard in 1983. Among the contributors'
                 cumulative credits: sessions with Earle, Nelson,
                 Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Neil Diamond,
                 Rod Stewart and many others.

                 The album, in stores Tuesday, is a low-key wonder.
                 With a few minor exceptions, the band sounds as
                 though it were in the studio communing with Van
                 Zandt's ghost, not just overdubbing tracks.
                 Recorded during a period of relative sobriety, Van
                 Zandt's voice sounds steadier than it often did. He
                 strains to reach the higher notes of ``Pancho and
                 Lefty,'' and his utterances on the talking ``Sanitarium
                 Blues'' suggest a subdued Slim Pickens, of all
                 people. Still, there's a distinct sense that he knew
                 these could be definitive recordings.

                 Like so many deceased musicians, the
                 manic-depressive Van Zandt seemed certain of his
                 impending departure. He named one of his early
                 albums ``The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt'' and
                 dubbed one song included here ``Waitin' 'Round to
                 Die.'' ``Tell my friends to mourn me none,'' he
                 instructs on ``Rex's Blues,'' one of the finer
                 moments on ``A Far Cry From Dead.''

                 ``Living's mostly wastin' time,'' he sings without
                 regret on another of his classics, ``To Live's to Fly.''
                 Hank Williams might well have agreed. Strange,
                 isn't it, how music becomes immortal only after the
                 maker is dead.

                 -- James Sullivan

From the August/September issue of Country Music:
> TOWNES VAN ZANDT -- A Far Cry From Dead
> By all accounts, Townes Van Zandt was a man who lived his legend.  A truly
> gifted songwriter, he was also a manic-depressive who was constantly on
> the run from assorted demons.  Yet he was able to see beauty deep down
> inside, chronicling the joy and pain of life's losers.  After he died on
> New Year's Day, 1997, at the age of 52, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve
> Earle, Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark were among the many
> who showed up to say goodbye to a dear friend.
>       Given the awe and loyalty that Van Zandt inspired in those around
> him, it's no surprise that this project was undertaken with so much care.
> Working with just a box full of tapes that Van Zandt left behind, producer
> Eric Paul (Harris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash) took
> his original vocal and guitar tracks and built arrangements around them.
>       The results are astounding.  Unlike some thrown together posthumous
> releases, A Far Cry From Dead, sounds completely organic, and Van Zandt's
> vocals have fire and urgency that wasn't always captured in his earlier
> recordings.  Of the album's 13 songs, most are new versions of his
> classics, including "Pancho and Left," "To Live Is To Fly" and "Ain't
> Leavin' Your Love."
>       For the uninitiated, Van Zandt's voice and songs can be acquired
> tastes.  His interior tours can be dark and intense; they make your eyes
> open wide, yet sometimes the pain is too real.  Once, during an
> in-the-round concert, an audience member said, "I love your songs, but
> when are you going to sing a happy one?"  Van Zandt just smiled at her and
> deadpanned, "Darlin', these are the happy ones."
>       If you've always wondered what all the fuss was about, this is an
> excellent place to start.
> -- Cyndi Hoelzle


From the San Jose Mercury News, July 6, 1999:

      'A Far Cry From Dead'
      Widow makes Van Zandt tapes into new CD
      Fort Worth Star-Telegram

      BEFORE he died in January 1997, Townes Van Zandt used to tell his
wife, Jeanene, that he might not have been famous when he was alive, but
that once he passed away she would be ``a very busy girl.''
      Jeanene didn't know what her songwriter husband meant.

      There was little chance of a Jimi Hendrix-like post-mortem
popularity explosion. Townes never sold many records, even though he'd
been a major influence on people such as Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and
the Cowboy Junkies and his songs had been covered by everyone from
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to Bob Dylan to Seattle grunge band
Mudhoney. He was known more for his hard living than for his music.

      But 2 1/2 years after his death at age 52, Townes is about to get

at least as much attention as he ever did alive, maybe more -- all
because of a handful of tapes he casually passed along to Jeanene
shortly before his death.

      Late last month, ``A Far Cry From Dead,'' a collection of 13 songs
Townes recorded primarily between 1989 and 1991, was released. The music
includes Van Zandt favorites such as ``Pancho and Lefty,'' ``To Live Is
to Fly,'' ``Snake Mountain Blues,'' ``For the Sake of the Song,'' and
two previously unheard tunes, including ``Sanitarium Blues,'' the last
tune Townes recorded.

      He gave the recordings to Jeanene with a cryptic ``Hang onto
these, babe,'' and she set them aside until months after his death.

      ``I was archiving his stuff and I wondered what was on them,''
says Jeanene Van Zandt, a Corpus Christi, Texas, native who met her
husband in Austin in December 1980. ``So I called Eric (Paul) and we had
Thanksgiving dinner and started listening and I was like, `Holy cow -- I
never heard Townes sing and play this good.' ''

      Paul is a respected Nashville producer who has worked with Kris
Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and Nelson. He, too, was
stunned by what he was hearing. But like Jeanene, he didn't know what to
do with the tapes. Then Jeanene heard about the possibility of a Townes
Van Zandt live CD that would include, she says, subpar performances.

      ``I was upset,'' she says. ``I thought it'd destroy his career.
And then his voice came into my head saying, `Remember those tapes?
You've got everything you need.' ''

      She and Paul began working on the tapes, adding musicians over the
basic guitar-and-voice tracks that Townes had laid down. They didn't
have a label, so to pay for the studio and musicians, Jeanene sold off
some stock she had been saving. The two of them would sit in a Nashville
studio with the lights off and candles burning; there would be pictures
of Townes all over and, in a little heart-shaped tin, his ashes.

      ``Every time I go somewhere I take the tin,'' Jeanene says. ``When
we started doing the record it was like, `Come on, Townes, we're going
to the studio.' I figured he'd want to be there.

      ``Townes taught me a lot in 15 years, and it all came out -- I'd
say, `I want butterfly wings,' and Eric would know what I mean. I think
in terms of flowers; he knows how to make flowers show up on tape.''

      Paul says the hardest part was assembling the beginnings and
endings of the songs.

      ``The intros and exits were all fabricated,'' he says. ``Townes
didn't play intros. He'd just start. I strengthened what we had with
guitar and dobro when his guitar wasn't enough. The songs took on their
character at that point.''

      The most troublesome -- both to record and to listen to -- was
Townes' final composition, ``Sanitarium Blues.''

      Recorded as a spoken poem, it describes, in chilling detail, being
sent to a sanitarium, receiving shock treatments, and the confusion he
felt upon being released. ``They hose you down, make sure you're
clean/Wrap you up in hospital green/Shoot you full of Thorazine/The
sanitarium blues,'' he sings in a clenched, despair-drenched voice.

      The CD was completed last year, and Jeanene and Paul didn't know
what to do with it. People at Arista Records were talking about Townes'
music; Paul took the finished tapes to the label on a Thursday and got a
call back Monday.

      ``Eric told me they wanted the record,'' Jeanene says. ``And when
I put down the phone, it was like a veil between me and the other side
had opened and I saw him there, smiling, for just a second, and he was

      ``All of his and my dreams were coming true, and I couldn't
believe it.''

From The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Townes Van Zandt

A Far Cry From Dead

(Arista ***1/2)

Contrary to this album's title, Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt is
very much dead - has been, in fact, since Jan. 1, 1997. But given the
way the oft-brilliant, always boozing songwriter's career went, it's not
surprising that he had to die to get a major-label deal.

The surprise is what a fine representation of Van Zandt's depressive,
poetic spirit is put forth on A Far Cry, on which solo recordings of
much-loved songs such as "Pancho and Lefty" and "For the Sake of the
Song" and lesser-known haunters such as "Waiting 'Round to Die" have
been dressed up with laudable restraint by Nashville musicians. The
tasteful studio treatment firms up Van Zandt's tunes, which had a
tendency to wander, and the inclusion of two unheard songs, the
delightful road-kill ditty "Squash" and harrowingly autobiographical
"Sanitarium Blues," close the deal.

- - Dan DeLuca


From Country Music Roundup, UK, July 1999:

AFCFD Review by Maurice Hope:

Texan singer-songwriter, the late Townes Van Zandt, dead now over two years,
but his music lives on. Not only in the work of others, as it, admittedly
always gained its biggest audience. Don Williams, Anne Murray, Emmylou
Harris, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Nanci Griffith, The
Cowboy Junkies and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have all either, had hits
iwth his songs or featured them as prominent album tracks.

While his music was prominent in it's quality, his lyrics a mix of everyday
life and the nerve touching, Townes life itself could be, and often was,
disturbing. The frailty of his make-up often near collapsing.

A charming, gentle man as his love songs reflect, blessed with a poet styled
hand, Townes mixed the bittersweet, sombre blues (to him everything was
blues), wry humour and the morose to such effect fellow musicians and fans
alike held him in awe. I'm talking Griffith and Earle!

Taking from tapes Townes did some time before his death, and rediscovered by
his widown, Jeanene Van Zandt they were brought to producer Eric Paul, who
claims he did everything to make Townes sound good. Using no more than five
musicians (Richard Bennett lead guitar and veterans Charlie McCoy and Kenny
Malone) at any one time he has done just that.

Never is Townes voice thin, a previously unreleased 'Sanitarium Blues'
accepted there's a fluent, melodic feel present in his voice, and on 'Rex's
Blues' (plied in harmonica), 'Greensboro Woman', 'Pancho and Lefty' (and
more), plus a song that I'm unfamiliar with, road kill ditty, 'Squash' a
magical sparkle exudes.

An enigma, most certainly, and as this recording reveals, a Texas treasure
(at the very least), and one that should be fondly remembered.

(Five stars out of five)


From Hot Press (Ireland) 21 July 1999 (Vol 23 #13):
By Siobhan Long

Townes Van Zandt

Unpredictability was always Townes' middle name. Just when you thought
he was giving it heaps, he'd zip off into the stratosphere, not to be
found for days - or weeks even. And A FAR CRY FROM THE DEAD is his
postcard from the edge. Funny thing is, it's more polished and poised
than he recorded while he shuffled on this mortal coil.

For diehard fans, there's a big bonus here: two previously unavailable
tracks, both of which are sassy reminders of just how divine a
songwriter he was. "Sanitarium Blues" and "Squash" are two more of
those classic TVZ crazed, droll vignettes - this time taking death and
armadillos for subject matter. Not quite the material for a Celine
Dion ballbreaker; more like the arsenal for a thousand Texan
gunslingers whose only company is a hip flask, a guitar and a Spanish

There are strings and Spanish guitar aplenty here - enough to garner
the kind of mainstream radio exposure that Townes never quite managed
to seduce in 3D. "For The Sake Of The Song" is a gorgeous, lustrous
affair with that Van Zandt flatfooted vocal gliding on top of
sympathetic yet seamsless studio arrangements. "Waitin' Round To Die"
was prescient, as were so many of his songs: painting no-holds barred
pictures of a life pockmarked and pummelled (and yes, beautifully
bolstered, too) by whiskey.

But the sublime moments are many and often. "Tower Song" is a
magnificent ode to the tongue-tiedness of love. His voice cries like a
wounded dog that's going to sit outside the door 'til he gets some TLC
and sympathy. And as for "Many A Fine Lady", well that buck naked TVZ
honestly simply astounds as it lures you into submission.

It's difficult to be critical of a piece of work that others have
moulded into a commercial product. Doubtless, Townes would've been
tickled by the prospect of the corporate suits haggling over his back
catalogue, and he'd probably grin at the career boost it'll bestow on
him as he cackles from the balcony way up yonder.

If it's 24 carat Townes you're looking for, it's probably best to head
straight for his back catalogue ("Blue Sky" and "Rex's Blues" are pure
Van Zandt). Then again, if your appetite demands the whole enchilada
instead pf the chicken shack nachos, place your order for the new,
improved Townes right here.

[10 out of 12]


From the Seattle Weekly:
Townes Van Zandt
A Far Cry From Dead
Arista Austin
A few years before his death on New Years Day 1997, Texas songwriting
troubadour Townes Van Zandt handed his wife Jeanene a batch of 21
recordings he had assembled over the previous few years: Just Townes, his
guitar, and a couple dozen of the classic songs that Steve Earle has called
"the finest literature of the 20th century." Now a little more than two
years after Townes passing at 52, Jeanene keeps here husband's memory
burning. Together with Nashville producer Eric Paul and an army of
musicians and friends who backed the recordings, she has released 13 of
those songs on this collection. One of his generations most respected
songwriters, Townes was sadly also one of it's most unknown. His lyrics are
part Hank Williams, part Woody Guthrie, haunting one moment and tear-jer
king the next. And his melodies lock the words in your head and throw away
the key. Whispers of country-folk and hard-charging blues are evident on
re-recorded versions of his classics "For The Sake Of The Song", "Ain't
Leavin' Your Love", and "Pancho and Lefty" (which was brought to No. 1 by
Willie Nelson). But it's the never before released gems "Squash" and
"Sanitarium Blues" that make this record. The latter was tricky for Jeanene
and producer Paul, as Townes had left behind only a ramblin' spoken word
poem and a separate recording of guitar. His instructions: "You'll know how
to put the words and music together." Collectors of Townes sparse recording
library will be amazed at the quality of the sound, the cleanest vocals and
guitar work to ever grace his recordings. Townes life and music are
celebrated again in this historic and timeless collection of American music.
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