Charly Records have re-released much of Townes’ back catalogue in the UK since his death in 1997, and this, his self titled (but second) album, was recorded in Nashville in 1970, and represents an early highpoint in the career of a relatively neglected if well respected Texan singer-songwriter.
Being a late-comer to his music, it feels like there’s been 33 years of my life where I’ve been missing something essential.
The only way I can put it, to quote Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, is that if it has to be “rock n roll” to “fill the hole in your soul”, then it has to be Townes when some ***** has ripped your soul out and left it shredded on the floor.
Steve Earle on the liner notes to Van Zandt’s 1987 album “At My Window”: “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.”. His songs were covered by Nanci Griffith, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Hoyt Axton, The Cowboy Junkies, Earle himself and EmmyLou, and yet somehow, he never achieved the record sales or fame of any of those artists, despite being held in awe and respect by many of them.
Guy Clark, his fellow Texan and often-times touring partner, said of his lyrical style: “It's literature. It approaches that to me. I think we should all aspire to that.” And in some ways, putting the music aside for just one moment, that really gets what Townes is about.
His style combined images and dreams of the rural hinterland of the South West, hobos and losers, drunks, lost loves and regrets, as well as simple, bone-crushing despair.
In a 1995 interview with Associated Press, he said of his subjects: “"The point is that people I've taken real serious are already in real serious trouble,'' Van Zandt said. "If I take them seriously, that's a step up.''
If there’s a battle in our memories for the title of Poet Laureate of the lost, the hopeless, the homeless and the down-at-heart, if Cash fought through his words for “all God’s Children”, and Bukowski simply related tales of these people and preserved their memories and lives, Townes’s work find us right inside their skin.
Add to that “For the Sake of the Song”, the first track on the album, with it’s words which somehow summarize the motivation of so many of our musical heroes:
“Why does she sing
her sad songs for me,
I'm not the one
to tenderly bring
her soft sympathy
I've just begun
to see my way clear
and it's plain,
if I stop I will fall
I can lay down a tear
for her pain,
just a tear and that's all.
What does she want me to do?
she says that she knows
that moments are rare
I suppose that it's true
then on she goes
to say I don't care,
and she knows
that I do.
Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song
and who do I think that I am to decide that she's wrong?”
In essence, and in summary, Van Zandt was the first Americana singer- his style is sparse, direct, empathetic and literary, as well as plain old blue, and it’s hard to imagine Will Oldham, Josh Ritter or the Handsome Family doing what they do without him- there’s something about the heat generated here which suggests a genesis.
At the end of the sixties, at the dawn of the “golden age” of singer-songwriters, Van Zandt was already shrugging off the clichés and declining the center of the stage, letting others win fame and popularity with his work. Bukowski once said that the only two things he had to do were drink and write, and listening to this beautiful, folky county record, you know that this stuff had to come out of Townes somehow.
Better therapy than the electric-shock treatment he received for his depression and schizophrenia, for sure.
And somehow, from a man who made it his life’s work to bring attention to the marginalized and lost, his words describe the very essence of the Americana movement- authentic, virulently creative and socially and politically engaged.