From Aug 2005

10. Live at The Old Quarter, Townes Van Zandt
by Zayne Reeves

Extracted from full article entitled Heartworn Highways: The 25 Greatest Country Albums of All Time


For a very long time, I tried not to like Townes Van Zandt. When I was at the height of my Dylan period, I bristled at how Van Zandt enthusiasts always seemed to feel it necessary to denigrate "Uncle Robert" (I'll never get that State sketch out of my head) in order to prop up their guy. If you read the liner notes to For The Sake of The Song, there's this infuriating passage about how fans of Dylan proclaim him the greatest because he's this world famous figure and it's easier for them to say that than do their homework on other songwriters. To me, this is akin to having the trailer for the new Willy Wonka feature include some blurb stating "If you come away from this film still liking Gene Wilder, you deserve to die alone and scared." It only hurts your cause is all I'm sayin'. Also, I'm not exactly crazy about how Townes' tortured life has become synonymous with artistic integrity for those who've come along since and I'm afraid that too many talented artists will wind up hurting themselves trying to match his hard, hard living the way previous generations did with Hank Sr. The thawing process didn't start until his Poet tribute record came out and I spent a few months totally obsessed with Willie Nelson's reading of "Marie."

But none of the above tells you anything about why Live At The Old Quarter is one of the greatest country albums of all time. It's all in the songs, every single bit of it. Outside of the Hank and Merle anthologies, there's nothing on this list that boasts such an endless string of masterpieces. "Pancho & Lefty" remains Townes' most famous song thanks to the Willie & Merle version that was a smash back in the early 80s and the song has lost none of its mythical appeal in spite of the fact that you can throw a rock out your bedroom window and hit someone performing it at a coffeehouse open mic. You can argue that there are songs on here that are even better than "Poncho & Lefty," but it's such a perfect representation of why Townes was a genius songwriter. You look at the lyrics to that song and what distinguishes it from so much of folk or country or whatever you want to call it songwriting is how Townes never got hung up on "breakfast to bed" details. As with Dylan, Prine and Welch, Townes gives you these verses that conjure up a thousand different images in your mind and no matter how many times you listen to them, they always show you something different. Take the third verse of "Pancho & Lefty:" "Lefty he can't sing the blues/All night long like he used to/The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty's mouth/The day they laid poor Pancho low/Lefty split for Ohio/Where he got the bread to go/There ain't nobody knows." Now I've heard that verse sung a million times by about that many singers and it always takes me somewhere new. I've seen flashes of Lefty Frizzell collecting a blood money payoff from Jimmy Martin, silver fish in a dank, south of the border flophouse and, oddly enough, Streisand's Yentl.

Part of what makes Live At The Old Quarter so great is the atmosphere of this gritty little joint and the 18' by 38' room that Townes and so many others held court in back in those heady days in Houston. You can hear bottles clanking, people rustling and even sounds from the street outside but all of that falls away once the lyrics start pouring out from Townes. Unbeatable songs like "Two Girls," "If I Needed You," "Tecumseh Valley," "Loretta," and "Lungs" that have been covered by the likes of Don Williams, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, The Gourds, Norah Jones and countless others.

On "Two Girls" there's this surreal, funhouse element to the material that you don't often find in folk music. "Clouds didn't look like cotton/Didn't even look like clouds/I was underneath the weather/My friends looked like a crowd/The swimmin' hole was full of rum/I tried to find out why/All I learned was this my friend/You got to swim before you fly" is the song's opening verse and it is as startling a depiction of alienation as anything you're likely to encounter. Everything around you and inside you is off and even the reliable forms of escape from it all don't quite get the job done for you anymore.

Tragically, Townes was as troubled as he was brilliant and, unlike some of his peers and students, he never did beat the devil. Live At The Old Quarter remains the highpoint of his career, before frustration with lack of commercial success and self-destructive behavior took control of the wheel, and it's the way he should be remembered.

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