Texas Music

Covering Townes Van Zandt Can Be a Tricky Proposition

Not all that long ago, Rocks Off saw some comment on a Facebook thread where a guy claiming to be a poet said he didn't think Townes van Zandt was the great poet/lyricist so many seem to think. His complaint: he felt like in every Townes song there was some flaw, some line that shouldn't have been added or should have been tweaked.

Steve Earle, no piker as a lyricist himself, cut an entire album of van Zandt songs two years back. The often hyperbolic Mr. Earle once declared he would jump up on Bob Dylan's coffee table and proclaim that Townes was a better songwriter than Mr. Zimmerman.

Personally, Rocks Off isn't willing to go that far. Dylan may mail a live show in occasionally at this point, but it's hard to argue with the man's career, influence, and lyrics. And, no disrespect meant to Earle, but Dylan and Townes are two different Jimmy Webbs. Where Dylan's arch has been huge, lingering, and spread across many universes, van Zandt's was quick, hard, and fairly brutal. That reality is reflected in Van Zandt's work, however flawed the Facebook poster may find it.

Despite the Facebook poet's sniveling critique, one measure of the esteem Van Zandt's work is held in -- at least by singers and songwriters -- is the substantial number of covers of his songs. Along with Earle, Richard Dobson has recorded an entire album of Townes songs, Amigos, in 1994, and Jonell Mosser did the same in 1996 with Around Townes.

Two years later, folkie Rhonda Harris released an entire album of van Zandt songs called Tell the World We Tried, which pretty much went nowhere. In 2010, David Broza dropped Night Dawn, an entire of album of poems van Zandt wrote but never recorded.

Poet: A Tribute To Townes van Zandt was released in 2001 and included the usual suspects: Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, etc.That same year, Texas Rain, an album of posthumous studio-magic duets with a star-studded list of Texas singer-writers, was also released.

In 2007, Glitterhouse Records released There's A Hole in Heaven Where Some Sin Slips Through, an imaginative mix of left-of-center artists like Jon Langford and Gary Heffern and Marah tackling Van Zandt's oeuvre. In 2009, a relatively unknown gaggle of singers released Introducing Townes Van Zandt Via the Great Unknown, which featured an interesting stylistic mix reimagining some Townes tunes.

Yet, In spite of the huge success Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had with their cover of Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983, picking a tune from the Townes catalog can prove a tricky proposition.

Emmylou Harris was the first major talent to record a Van Zandt cover, cutting "Pancho and Lefty" six years prior to Nelson and Haggard. But outside of a cult of aficionados, the track fell mostly on deaf ears -- if it was heard at all. If you weren't in that world, you probably never even heard it, although it was a regular in her live sets. (Yes, that's Rodney Crowell and the mighty Albert Lee backing up Harris.)

Harris, Nelson, and Haggard certainly fared better with Van Zandt than Evan Dando and the Lemonheads did. Dando's version is clean and tone-perfect, but his reading is more a straight homage that generates little excitement and adds nothing to "Waiting Around to Die," a gritty drifter's tale that van Zandt claimed was the first song he ever wrote in the movie, Heartworn Highway.

We wonder what Dando was thinking when he stepped behind the microphone to record. It's not that it's "bad," it just adds nothing and fails to capture any of the emotional danger Van Zandt conveyed in the original. Dando sings it OK, but it just isn't believable.

Mumford and Sons add a bit more feeling to their cover of the gorgeous "If I Needed You," but something about this arrangement whispers to Rocks Off that these guys probably came to Van Zandt via Harris or Don Williams. They certainly put the Mumford stamp on it, and it depends on the listener's level of Mumford fandom whether or not this works. To Rocks Off, it's another Mumford yawner.

The following are a few of Rocks Off's favorite Townes covers, purposely omitting Nelson and Haggard, Earle, Lyle Lovett and other obvious choices.

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Steve Young was already a major force in the Nashville roots/singer-songwriter community when Van Zandt arrived in Nashville. He also appeared in Heartworn Highways, the first documentary about the young Texas songwriter turks who were shaking up the Nashville system. With his god-like voice, Young could cover Madonna and sell it. He makes the wistful "Snowing On Raton" his own.

Jason Isbell may have the Americana album of the year in 2013 with Southeastern. A chilling vocalist, Isbell channels Townes about as well as anyone on this live version of "Pancho and Lefty," which Steve Earle identified as the hardest Townes song to cover. Van Zandt frequently had trouble with the longish tale himself.

Sam Bush and his New Grass Revival not only flew in the face of mainstream bluegrass convention with their amplifiers, electric bass, and hippie hair, they reached outside the box in search of interesting material. Their version of van Zandt's "White Freighliner Blues" is as scorching as any of the oft-covered tune.

Gospel/soul giants the Holmes Brothers took all the country whang out of "If I Needed You," proving once and for all that Van Zandt's work translated beyond the narrow borders of folk music.

Of course, along with Steve Earle, Guy Clark was a close confidant and co-conspirator of Van Zandt's, so it is hardly surprising that Clark has a facility at making van Zandt's material his own. Clark included at least five van Zandt compositions on albums during his career. None was any more perfect than this version of "Don't Take It Too Bad."

Margo Timmins and her Cowboy Junkies had a strong affinity for Townes, even taking him out on tours to open for them. The Junkies climbed deep inside the aching blue sorrow factor in van Zandt's spirit.

More Townes on the next page.

Eric Taylor was a Van Zandt running buddy back in his Houston period. They'd hang out at the Family Hand and wait for the cops to come roust the joint. Taylor doesn't just channel Van Zandt as well as anyone, he blows the whole thing up into a Kerouac novel.

But in Rocks Off's opinion, the best Van Zandt covers come from the always-dangerous Calvin Russell. Russell's struggles with drugs, jail, homelessness, and, eventually, fame, seemed to make him almost savant-like when he covered a van Zandt composition, which he did frequently. Robert Earl Keen and others have covered "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd," but Russell climbs inside the tune like he owns it.

Russell also dropped another monster Townes interpretation, taking on the difficult "Rake." "Rake" and "Lungs" are two murky, brooding epics that only the strongest need ever attempt to cover. Russell not only covers it, he literally makes the song seem to be about him and, if you know anything about Russell and his hardscrabble life, that is virtually true.

Runners up: The Gourds, "Two Girls"; "Robert Earl Keen, Jr., "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd"; George Hamilton IV, "I'll Be Here In the Morning"; Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "White Freight Liner Blues"; Nanci Griffith, "Tecumseh Valley"; Felice Brothers, "Two Hands"; Norah Jones, "Be Here To Love Me"; Albert Lee, "If I Needed You"; Little Willies, "No Place To Fall" James McMurtry, "Rex's Blues"


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William Michael Smith