Texas Music

Covering Townes Van Zandt Can Be a Tricky Proposition

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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.

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William Michael Smith