(Re)Graded on a Curve: Townes Van Zandt, (s/t)

Both in songwriting circles and in the oft harsh arena of departed personalities that never got their just due, the late Townes Van Zandt has grown into a mythic figure. Widely celebrated today for his very personal blend of smart country-folk expression, for the majority of his life Van Zandt was a frustratingly unknown entity. There exists numerous worthwhile entry points into the man’s rich body of work, but the best doorway is provided by his exquisite self-titled third LP from 1969, a record inching toward its forty-fifth year of existence with all of its artistic power undiminished.

Townes Van Zandt was one of the true bittersweet troubadours of American Music. The woeful obscurity that afflicted him during a life too short and rife with trouble (dead of a heart attack shy of his 53rd birthday in 1997 after many years of drug and alcohol addiction) is hard to reconcile with the nude beauty of his music.

The Velvet Underground’s now legendary lack of popularity while extant was basically tied to their being so defiantly ahead of their time, Big Star’s elusive sales figures were directly related to how they harkened back and revitalized the tidy appeal of ‘60s pop-rock in an era that greatly preferred excess, and Don Van Vliet was a kingpin of cult status mainly because he was such a blatant weird-meat, but Townes Van Zandt was just a powerful singer and brilliant songwriter whose early recordings should’ve been, if not huge, than certainly substantially bigger than they actually were at the time of their release.

From ’68-’72 Van Zandt recorded six albums that slowly solidified his reputation as a true rough diamond in the oft-problematic category of singer-songwriter, and it can be speculated that the guy’s natural blend of folk and country was perhaps a little bit urbane for the C&W hardliners of the time and maybe too tough for a folk-set that was preparing to turn the corner into the mellow hell of James Taylor etc. But at worst this should’ve somewhat limited Van Zandt’s appeal, not kneecapped it outright; it’s far easier to surmise that lack of promotion from the small Poppy label led to his misfortune as a musician’s musician.

As time marched forward and more people learned about him, the records’ general lack of availability became a problem. Even after Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s smash hit cover of “Poncho and Lefty” greatly increased his profile, the LPs were still pretty scarce in the racks, at least in the berg I call home. By the point of indie imprint Tomato’s reissuing of certain Poppy titles back in ’89, it seemed Van Zandt was destined to be cursed with eternal cult status, joining names like Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Guy Clark, and Mickey Newbury in a club of exemplary writers given unfair commercial shakes as performers of their own material.

Van Zandt’s first two records, ‘68’s For the Sake of the Song and the following year’s Our Mother the Mountain are fine examples of a songwriting talent of uncommon maturity brandishing an artistry compromised to differing extents by Jack Clement’s often ill-advised production ideas. While both albums ultimately reveal traits and angles that make them essential to understanding the formative creativity of their maker, the first true masterpiece in Van Zandt’s discography is his self-titled third LP, also released in ’69 and recorded in Nashville at the storied studio of Owen Bradley, a figure simultaneously renowned and derided as an architect of the Countrypolitan sound.

But like the Beau Brummels’ proto-country-rock classic Bradley’s Barn, Townes Van Zandt wisely lacks any of the strings, choirs and syrupy chart gloss that made Bradley’s name. The LP does feature four re-recordings of songs from his debut, each being a startling improvement upon its original, particularly opener “For the Sake of the Song.”

Where the version of the tune that titled his debut simply can’t escape Clement’s intention to mold it into something similar to a hard luck Harry Nilsson hanging out in a dusty border town and waxing poetic over a gorgeous if perplexing conchita (which sounds great on paper, I know, and is far from awful in actual execution), the second try cozies up to near perfection by stripping away any straining attempts at marketability; instead of riding someone other musician’s coattails it smartly relies upon the spare authority of voice and guitar.

When the accompaniment does assert itself it possesses a subtle, timeless quality that aids the song by never overwhelming it. This opening track sets up a hard act to follow, but thankfully Van Zandt has broad range inspired by a diversity of influence, with two of his biggest inspirations being Hank Williams and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His occasional welcome detours into blues or gospel material would really flourish on later albums, but Townes Van Zandt leaves nothing to be desired in terms of sonic breadth.

“Columbine” completely nails an aura of pretty mid-tempo finger-picking without falling prey to the inconsequential lightness that’s been plaguing folkies since they started spinning introspective. In this he’s proved a key influence on alt-country practitioners and freak-folk denizens alike, showing how to implement a sheer beauty move without floating off into the distance like so much dandelion fluff.

But he can also hit an extended note of existential despair with grace that seems effortless (“Waiting Around to Die”) and when he does add bluesy touches (the slide guitar on “Lungs,” the gnawing harmonica on “Waiting Around to Die”) it resonates with genuine appreciation of the style and not a quick study in genre grafting.

There are of course songs that under different circumstances could’ve translated into commercial hits; the gorgeous fragility of “None But the Rain” (replete with non-crap flute), the expert country stroll through a no-nonsense ode to a wounded heart that is “Don’t Take It Too Bad,” and the shrewdly implicit Dylanisms of “Fair Thee Well, Miss Carousel” for three instances. But when regarding the discography of the man it’s best not to dwell for very long over what might’ve been.

That line of thinking positions this vital artist as a failure or at least something close to it, and one listen to Townes Van Zandt (or any of his prime material for that matter) will easily prove the fallacy of that notion. By extension, I don’t think it’s really appropriate to compare him to chart successes like Outlaw Country cornerstones Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

Instead, it’s seems best to place his oeuvre within the context of albums from other underappreciated and stylistically similar writer-players of the period like Newbury’s “American Trilogy” (comprised of the titles Looks Like Rain, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help the Child), Clark’s Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’, the Flatlanders’ More a Legend Than a Band, Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua! and Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything).

What, you haven’t heard those records? Well then, best commence to cracking there partner. But please don’t forget Townes Van Zandt while getting up to speed with the above batch of classic neglected stuff, for his collected output is a jewel in the wealth of this country’s disparate song form. To miss it is to do your ears a great disservice.

(RE)GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+ 

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