TVZOLOGY: A brief review of the best of Townes Van Zandt: Two in the Studio, and Several Live Ones

see also the discography page, for ratings and links to other reviews

by Len Coop - Editor, Townes Van Zandt - Blue Sky Homepage

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.

Live at the Old Quarter Lyrics

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.