Was an evening with Townes ever gentle?
Was an evening with Townes ever gentle?

Townes Van Zandt

On a recent afternoon, I was plowing through a box of 45s at a used-record store when I stumbled upon "No Place to Fall," a seven-inch by Townes Van Zandt. This discovery struck me as both exciting, because I didn't know a Van Zandt single had ever been issued, and absurd, since no record-company decision-maker worth his weight in cynicism would ever have thought such a release had a chance in hell of becoming a hit. But after I gave it a spin on my home jukebox, the gloomy elegance of the composition promptly put me under the same spell that likely blinded the aforementioned executive to seemingly obvious commercial realities. It would have been a smash, I was certain, if only enough people had heard it.

Van Zandt's career was haunted by crushed dreams such as this one. He earned consistent critical praise and the admiration of his peers, but the vast majority of the public heard his songs only when they were covered by folks such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. His own recordings -- too serious and literate for the typical C&W fan, too delicate and downbeat for rockers -- tended to drift inexorably toward the cutout bins, in parallel with his own journey from fresh-faced truth seeker to worn-out music-biz casualty.

In all probability, the recent rash of Van Zandt reissues and retrospectives won't result in a large-scale posthumous rediscovery. But at least for now, music lovers will have the opportunity to hear a gifted composer sing for himself.

None of these discs features much in the way of information; the liner notes don't even reveal in what years the songs were penned. But the music more than compensates for such weaknesses. Texas Rain attempts to lure listeners via the prominence of its guest stars, who include Doug Sahm ("Two Girls"), James McMurtry ("Snowin' on Raton") and Kathy Mattea ("At My Window"). But the biggest draws are the songs -- especially "If I Needed You," which mates Van Zandt's late-period rasp with the ethereal warbling of Emmylou Harris.

The Best of Townes Van Zandt goes the guest-star route at times, too, and not always to its benefit: Willie Nelson's "No Place to Fall," for example, can't compare to the original. (For a better rendition, check out Live at the Old Quarter, a 1977 album that recently returned to stores.) And the decision to place a phlegmatic rendering of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" next to "For the Sake of the Song," a breathtaking early ditty that finds Van Zandt's light tenor in virginal condition, is unpleasantly jarring. But for the most part, the album provides a well-rounded picture of a man who was tougher than he seemed -- check out the brawny run-through of the blues chestnut "Who Do You Love" -- and smarter than just about any of his guitar-wielding contemporaries. Plenty of musicians are said to write poetically, but he really did. Witness "Our Mother the Mountain," which begins, "My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom / The moon's dancin' purple all through her black hair / And a lady-in-waiting, she stands 'neath my window / And the sun will rise soon on the false and the fair."

As for A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt, recorded during a 1969 appearance at Carnegie Hall when the singer was 25, it starts off on a not-especially-gentle note: Van Zandt jokes that he decided to begin with the satirical "Talking KKK Blues" instead of "Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues," which turns up later, because "I figured there were more bigots here than winos." But elsewhere, he concentrates on acoustic balladry as fragile as glass figurines. "Rake," "Like a Summer's Thursday" and "She Came and She Touched Me," in particular, are heartbreakingly gorgeous -- melodic whispers that ring more clearly than ever.

No one put these songs on a 45, and that's too bad. They'd turn any jukebox into a thing of beauty.


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