Graded on a Curve: Townes Van Zandt,
At My Window

Released in March of 1987, Townes Van Zandt’s At My Window was the celebrated singer-songwriter’s only studio album of the 1980s. It’s a tidy 10-song set that captured him in solid form with the assistance of his longtime producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement plus sturdy backing from session pros including guitarist Mickey White, fiddler and mandolinist Mark O’Connor, and harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Originally issued by the Sugar Hill label, At My Window is getting a well-deserved vinyl reissue by Craft Recordings for Record Store Day Black Friday on November 25.

At My Window was not only Townes Van Zandt’s only ’80s studio record (there was also a solitary live album, Live & Obscure, issued in ’87), it was his first studio effort in nine years, belatedly following up Flyin’ Shoes, which was released by Tomato in ’78. A lengthy break of this sort is often indicative of personal struggles, but the established story here is that Van Zandt was living pretty well during this stretch, with royalty money rolling in amidst a period of stable home living.

The cash flow derived from the successes far more famous commercial country performers were having with his songs, none bigger than Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s “Poncho and Lefty,” a No. 1 smash on the country chart released in 1983. Contrasting, Van Zandt remained a cult figure with a fervent listenership including other musicians, as the sticker slapped upon the shrink-wrap of At My Window in ’87 quoted Steve Earle: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

The relative handful of Van Zandt newbies who were inspired to buy this record blind in 1987 hopefully recognized Earle’s statement as zealous stumping for an underappreciated contemporary on the scene, but the set is also inspired enough, and full of high quality songs, to provide first time listeners with comprehension of Earle’s passionate advocacy.

Particularly as At My Window opens with the superb “Snowin’ on Raton,” as the warmth of Van Zandt’s voice and guitar combines with the rich and astutely measured accompaniment of mandolin, acoustic bass, harmonica, and subtle accordion. “Blue Wind Blew” follows, exuding a honkytonk aura that’s enhanced by the distinctiveness of Van Zandt’s voice; if his singing here isn’t a strong as it was on the best of his albums for the Poppy label, he’s still a highly expressive vocalist. Once heard, there’s no mistaking him for anybody else.

The title track swings back to a pretty and leisurely paced bit of country classicism, with mandolin and fiddle prominent. It leads into the beautifully rendered “For the Sake of the Song,” one of Van Zandt’s best-known compositions, with At My Window the fourth record in his discography up to this point to feature the tune. It’s a song so sturdy in it’s writing that it’s amongst this record’s highpoints, even as it’s not the strongest version Van Zandt recorded.

“Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love” shifts into something of a bluesy coffeehouse vibe, complete with some non-toxic saxophone (a considerable feat, as this set was cut in the 1980s, remember). “Buckskin Stallion Blues” even adds some flute, with the instrument delivering an undercurrent of Irishness. Along with some hand drumming, the saxophone returns in “Little Sundance #2” as it become clear that one of the goals was to place Van Zandt into a roughly contemporary context rather than merely reinforcing his stature as a purist country-folk singer-songwriting throwback.

This tactic avoids any blunders, though as the horn blowing persists into “Still Lookin’ for You,” the LP’s overall impact is lessened a bit. But Mickey White’s slide guitar arrives right on time in “Gone Gone Blues,” and then “The Catfish Song” strips it back to just keyboards and vocals for the standout finale. The bottom line is that while At My Window isn’t as strong as Townes Van Zandt’s best work, his greatness is still very much a part of the album’s equation. Anyone whole cherishes the man’s work will want it close at hand.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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