Steve Earle once famously wrote, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world,” adding for good measure, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Earle later backtracked on his statement, answering in the negative whether he really believed Van Zandt was Dylan’s superior. Van Zandt was also embarrassed by the fulsome praise (“I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards and if Steve thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken!”) but for Dylan’s own part, the legendary singer-songwriter reportedly was a big fan of the late Texas troubadour. Yet despite having his fans number the likes of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Dylan and Earle, Van Zandt died as he lived: a cult figure. His relatively small catalogue of songs enabled him to make a living in the business of song, but his own recordings never achieved mainstream success. A fiercely self-destructive streak ultimately led to his death in 1997, 44 years from the day on which his early inspiration Hank Williams passed.
Earlier this year, Omnivore Recordings pulled back the curtain on Townes Van Zandt’s enduring mystique with the release of Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 (OVCD-15, 2013), a double-disc compendium of 28 previously unissued tracks from a true “songwriters’ songwriter” who blurred the lines of folk, country and rock. Sunshine Boy drew from the era that yielded the albums Townes Van Zandt (1970), Delta Momma Blues (1971), High, Low and In Between (1971) and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (1972). Omnivore has recently detailed more of the Van Zandt story with reissues of the latter two LPs in remastered CD and vinyl editions, and these have been produced with the same care as the Sunshine Boy collection.
After the jump, we’ll revisit Sunshine Boy (just in case you missed our review the first time!) and explore High, Low and In Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt!
A poetic sensibility often placed Van Zandt lyrically closer to the folk-rock singer-songwriter canon than to many of his country contemporaries. His songs were rooted in the reality of a life lived on the edge, yet were alternately eloquent and oblique (or both!), intermittently romantic, and even dryly funny. High, Low and In Between indeed drew on those various states of mind. (The specter of Vietnam can also be detected in many of Van Zandt’s songs written during this period.) Produced by Tomato Records’ Kevin Eggers and featuring mostly subtle arrangements by pianist Don Randi of the famed Los Angeles Wrecking Crew, it’s a comfortable blend of folk and country styles all filtered through Van Zandt’s singular worldview. It contains what was reported to be Van Zandt’s favorite of his own songs, “To Live is to Fly,” a travelling songwriter’s farewell to a loved one. The plaintively-sung lyric begins with the bold proclamation, “I won’t say I love you, babe.” Reportedly written with Janis Joplin in mind, Van Zandt affectingly continues, “I won’t say I need you, babe/But I’m gonna get you, babe/And I will not do you wrong…” It’s a stark but affecting reminiscence. Darker still is “You Are Not Needed Now,” with Randi’s organ lending a churchy feel.
Yet it’s not all bleak, as Van Zandt’s humor also comes through. The ragged, humorous “No Deal” (“You can’t sell that stuff to me!”) is half-sung, half-spoken, and wholly delightful. The oblique “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” might fairly be described as “Dylanesque,” not that there’s anything wrong with that! Van Zandt’s sprawling tale of the wicked King of Clubs and the outlaw Jack of Diamonds, and various and sundry other personnel, remains appealingly strange. Far less surreal is “Two Hands,” one of the most direct, open-hearted and joyous pure gospel songs ever penned by Van Zandt (“I got two hands/Gonna clap my hands together/I got two legs/Gonna dance to heaven’s door/I got one heart/Gonna fill it up with Jesus/And I ain’t gonna think about trouble any more”). Just as musically jaunty is “Blue Ridge Mountains,” a new spin on the bluegrass standard.
Just months later in 1972, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt was released. Produced by longtime associate “Cowboy” Jack Clement and arranged by Chuck Cochran, both of whom played in the band, it was the second, stellar album from this all-too-short-lived prolific period. Despite its other great strengths, Late Great will always be remembered as the album that introduced “Pancho and Lefty.” The future outlaw anthem – a No. 1 Country hit in 1983 for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard - crystallized Van Zandt’s gifts as a storyteller. “Sad Cinderella” was first recorded by Van Zandt on his 1968 debut For the Sake of the Song, but its oblique lyric made it an ideal candidate for multiple interpretations. He once wryly commented of his songs, “nobody knows what they mean, not even me.” But much of their beauty lies in their mysteriousness and vivid imagery. “Silver Ships of Andilar” took Van Zandt into epic territory. The unflinching seafaring tale was given a sweeping orchestral treatment with prominent backing vocals, and the singer’s drawl took on the air of a grizzled storyteller: “Thanks give no word can drag you through/Those endless weeks our ships did roll/Thanks give you cannot see those sails/And faces bleach and draw/Ice we drank and leather did chew/For the oceans are unwholesome there/The dead that slid into the seas/Did freeze before our eyes.”
Three cover recordings were also included. Van Zandt paid tribute to Hank Williams with the rollicking “Honky Tonkin’,” and breathed new life into Lawton Williams’ gentle, yearning “Fraulein,” a No. 1 Country hit for Bobby (“Jingle Bell Rock”) Helms in 1957. Guy Clark’s “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya” evokes a barroom sing-along. But Van Zandt as a songwriter certainly wasn’t spent. His composition “If I Needed You” also made its first appearance on Late Great, and it’s rightfully beloved. Set to a simple chugging rhythm, it’s filled with understated romance: “If I needed you, would you come to me? Would you come to me, and ease my pain?/If you needed me, I would come to you/I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain…” Indeed, water, and the sea, is a subtle thread throughout the album, culminating in the sweet spiritual “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” Joined by a gentle fiddle, the singer is “building a houseboat in Heaven to sail those deep and holy seas,” and there’s room for two.
High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt are newly-remastered with liner notes from Colin Escott. Though there are no bonus tracks on the individual album reissues, there’s a good reason why: songs from both albums can be heard in alternate versions on the indispensable companion entitled Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972. Sixteen tracks on the first disc are dedicated to studio sessions, including alternates, early versions and two songs otherwise unavailable in studio performances (Jimmie Rodgers’ “’T’ For Texas” and The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers”). The second disc’s twelve tracks are all original demo recordings.
Some of the songs on Disc One, Studio Sessions, are heard in even more stripped-down renditions, but some tracks actually boast expanded arrangements. “Where I Lead Me” features horns not present on the Delta Momma Blues album version, and “No Deal” adds prominent backing vocals. The offbeat humor of the latter is newly enhanced by this addition. Most often, though, the emphasis is on Van Zandt’s own distinctive voice. The version of “To Live is to Fly” here is minus the piano on the final album version. And “Pancho and Lefty,” arguably Van Zandt’s masterpiece and certainly his most successful song, is unveiled in an alternate mix without its strings and mariachi horns.
Besides instrumental variations, there are also lyrical divergences on the Studio Sessions. “Sad Cinderella” is one such song which Van Zandt altered on the way to its finished version, but its less-than-straightforward lyrics and harsh, scathing imagery were equally sharp on this embryonic take. There are also, naturally, some choice cover versions. Van Zandt’s lighter side is on display via an update of “T for Texas,” written by the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. In the Townes version, one of the artist’s last-ditch highs is name-checked (““I’m going where that water tastes like Robitussin/I’m going where the water tastes like cherry wine”); he also made reference to Robitussin DM with his song “Delta Momma Blues,” not included on the new collection. A rambunctious cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” is another fun respite, but unfortunately, Van Zandt seems to most identify with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ “Dead Flowers.” It’s a sadly comfortable fit as he sings, “I’ll be down in my room with a needle and a spoon,” resignation hanging in the air. The musical style here is stylistically varied, from the funky beat and scorching electric guitar of the titular track “Sunshine Boy,” to the bluegrass of “Blue Ridge Mountains.” The twangy version of “Two Hands” lacks the backing vocals of the final version, making it a far more personal statement than the gone-to-church rave-up of the original.
Of the twelve low-key, nuanced demo tracks which premiere on Disc Two, two more songs have never been heard in studio versions: “Diamond Heel Blues” and “Dead Paint,” plus another stab at “Dead Flowers.” (“To Live is to Fly,” “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” and “You Are Not Needed Now” are the other songs repeated from Disc One, though in different recordings.) Van Zandt runs through many of his finest songs accompanied primarily by just his own guitar; there’s fragility in his voice on the wounded “Tower Song” (“You built your tower strong and tall/Can’t you see it’s got to fall someday?”) and a quiet grace on the fully-formed “To Live is to Fly.” There’s a detached air of self-analysis on the intense, painful “Highway Song,” in which the singer has made a peace with sad realities: “Well, I don’t know too much for true/But my heart knows how to pound/My legs know how to love someone/My voice knows how to sound/Shame that it’s not enough/Shame that it is a shame/Follow the circle down/Where would you be?”
The 16-page booklet, well-designed by Greg Allen, features vivid liner notes from Escott. The writer strikes just the right tone; though he avoids track-by-track analysis of the songs, he delivers a history of the singer filtered through his own personal perspective. Handily, a guide is offered as to where you can find the original album versions of each track. And a word from me to you: don’t turn the CD off after the final listed track on Disc Two. You’ll be pleased with what you discover.
This labor of love, as produced by Cheryl Pawelski and mastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen, is a revealing look into an artist whose depth is still being discovered by generations of younger songwriters and fans alike. The 2-CD set closes with a demo of “Standin’,” a song from High, Low and In Between. Van Zandt drawls, “If I hurt you, I did not mean to/I beg your pardon, I did not want to/When I leave you, don’t think about me/I won’t be back, babe, I’ll be long gone.” More than fifteen years after his death, one which seemed sadly prescribed by fate, the spirit has, in fact, never left. With Omnivore’s two album reissues as well as the new Sunshine Boy, the music of Townes Van Zandt won’t ever be “long gone.”
You can order each title by clicking on the album cover artwork, above, or at the links below:
Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 - 2-CD Set