BACK FROM THE DEAD 

Six re-issues + one newly discovered demo = posthumous accolades for Townes

When Townes Van Zandt died of a heart attack in New York City at age 52, it seemed like one more nail in the coffin for the American songwriter. Sure, we still have Dylan, but he gets

 
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a million dollars now for just walking out on stage. The man should rebel against himself. There is a current crop of up-and-comers - a talented and ambitious bunch, but too few to staunch the questionable flow of weepy 9-11 tributes and unquestioning pro-war "anthems" that now flood the bin of the harried music critic. No: When Townes died in 1997, a lot of music died with him.

Van Zandt expressed the confused emotions of his generation with the true voice of a poet, and the finger-picking of a good ol' boy. He effortlessly bridged the gap between the folkies and the hippies, his voice rising up from the Houston wards to speak the name of feelings that had just begun to be felt at the end of the '60s. The four earliest albums in the series - For the Sake of the Song, Our Mother the Mountain, Townes

 
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Van Zandt, and Delta Momma Blues - represent an intense handful of years in the artist's life, a time of incredible prolificity and influence in songwriting circles, when one illuminatory record seemed to follow another in a string of inspired writing and recording. From deep folk to the walking blues to the white man's honky-tonk, Van Zandt summoned the musical forces of the time to create something free and new. During these years, his music took shape as a force to be reckoned with, and it never lost that freedom. On the fifth reissue of the series, Flyin' Shoes, Van Zandt experimented with a sound that alienated many fans at the time, but rings true in hindsight. (To draw an unexpected analogy, this is his Electric Mud album - critically panned but great on its own). The last album Van Zandt cut before he died, 1993's The Nashville Sessions, allowed him to rework some older songs and bolster the bare
 
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bones sound of his earlier work with newer, fuller instrumentation. The portrait of the man in full emerges from the series of albums. The recent release of In the Beginning (Compadre Records), a formerly undiscovered cache of Van Zandt's earliest demo recordings from 1966, may prove to be the ironic final chapter of the man's brilliant musical career. These records easily place him in a higher echelon of musicians, and it's no wonder that Steve Earle still threatens to stand on Dylan's coffee table and declare Van Zandt "the greatest songwriter who ever lived."

Yet for all the songs Van Zandt shared with the world, his music also expressed a sad personal journey, a constant need to escape the emotional demons that haunted him. As Jimmie Dale Gilmore says in the new liner notes to Our Mother the Mountain, "In his songs, Townes is usually talking about the consciousness and the primal, universal battle of darkness and light. Townes was so articulate about it, he was so passionately feeling that he spent a whole lot of energy trying to escape the intensity of his feelings." The energy he spent was physical as well as creative, and he took more than musical cues from his forebear, Woody Guthrie. A consumate rambler, Van Zandt traveled the country, constantly floating between Texas and the Colorado Rockies with a notebook full of poems (songs in progress) and little

 
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else. Indeed, Joe Ely and even Gilmore himself were first introduced to Van Zandt when Ely picked him up hitchiking near Lubbock with a pile of his records. Those same records ended up influencing many more than the Flatlanders: Countless artists have recorded Van Zandt's songs (the Cowboy Junkies, Delbert McClinton, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Doc Watson), and others have turned those songs into hits (most notably, Emmylou Harris' version of "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson's and Merle Haggard's classic country duet on "Pancho & Lefty").

Despite the music's success and all the running, Van Zandt never fully outran himself.  It comes through in the songs: Van Zandt could make a love song sound incredibly sad, and I sometimes think he might have mixed up the lyrics and the music, recording a funeral dirge where he should have recorded a ballad. Of course, there were always tensions throughout his life, starting from when he eschewed his prominent Texas oil family's gilded roots for the life of a roving troubador. Then came alcoholism, and a number of other obstacles that prevented him from taking his place among the pantheon of well-known (and better paid) songwriters. By the time he died, he should have been taking it easy as a star in his own right. Instead, as a friend remarked, "He had it all, but he always had the blues."

As painful as this constant uneasiness must have been for Townes, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for the rest of us. Among the 70 or so songs Van Zandt left the world, there are innumerable hard truths about life resting like glowing pearls within the lyrics. "Sometimes I don't know where this dirty road is taking me," he sings on "Waitin' Around to Die" (For the Sake of the Song), "Sometimes I don't even see the reason why/I guess I keep on gamblin', lots of booze and lots of ramblin'/It's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die." •


More by Tucker Teutsch III

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