The preservationists at Omnivore Recordings have reissued two classic early ’70s albums by Townes Van Zandt, prince of the songwriting art, in nicely remastered editions on CD and vinyl. These relatively lo-fi recordings are never going to sound thoroughly modern, but comparison with my old CD versions reveals crisper sound with a bit more depth. Acoustic guitars and background vocals seem more brightly lit; piano tones are a little more present; the scampering bass on a song like “Standin’” is a little chunkier, and you can hear the shudder of the big strings on easygoing country-western songs like “No Lonesome Tune.”
Van Zandt’s vocals were recorded cleanly and flatly with little or no effects processing, so a remaster isn’t going to have much influence on the wry, often sad, uniquely quavery voice with which he delivered the songs that he wrote (and the handful of covers he sang) for High, Low and In Between (1971) and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972). But I wouldn’t want anything to “improve” Townes’s unmistakeable vocals. These albums were among the artistic high points of his broken, even tragic career.
Bipolar, peripatetic, a substance abuser, Van Zandt never realized the success that should have come to him from his songs, which have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Steve Earle both before and since the songwriter’s death in 1997 at the age of 52. (In 2009 Earle released Townes, an album of covers of 15 Van Zandt songs. It includes probably Van Zandt’s best-known song, “Pancho & Lefty,” as well as “To Live Is to Fly,” a song the Cowboy Junkies also covered and one that is to my mind a strong contender for Most Perfect Song Ever Written.) But no one can do his songs like the man himself could, and these two new discs with their fresh packaging, informative liner notes, and clean sound would be a superb introduction to Van Zandt for newbies.
Today, this “outlaw country” music would be labeled “Americana.” The songs live in the country-western idiom, but the folksy performances and production are far from Nashville-slick, the lyrics plainspoken but blessedly, shockingly free of cliché. Van Zandt was a lyrical writer, a man who at his best – as on these two albums – tapped into the mysteries and pains of emotion as a great poet does. From “Sad Cinderella”:
When the firedancers finish and leave you alone
With nothing but embers and sacks full of stone
That hang ’round your neck, slicing through to the bone
Will there still be a place for your laughter?
His songs calls for appreciation on multiple levels: as homespun country tunes, as gleaming pearls of melody, as expressions of raw ache, as poetry informed by fairy tales and ancient balladry. He wrote “Snow Don’t Fall” after the violent death of his girlfriend:
My love I need not see
To know she cast her glance at me.
That ain’t the kinda language you’ll find in written-by-committee country songs. No, Townes Van Zandt was an original, a songwriters’ songwriter, and now a legend. One wonders what would have happened if 21st century psychopharmacology had been available to him. Subjected to three months of insulin shock therapy after spinning out of college, he lost a lot of his long-term memory. But he lives in ours, as these two nicely produced re-releases attest.