There was a small window of time in the late '80s that I remember as a vinyl junkie's paradise. The entire industry had embraced the "unbreakable" compact disc, and big bucks were being made with reissues of classic rock titles. To make room for CDs, record stores were getting rid of their LPs as quickly as possible. The $1.00 bin was ubiquitous, and for those of us who did not toss out our turntables, it was fantastic. I bought a lot of records by artists that I had always been curious about, and Townes Van Zandt was one of them. My only regret is that it took me so long to discover him, because he was a one-of-a kind singer and songwriter.
The people at the very cool Omnivore Records are certainly aware of Townes, and have just reissued two of his best early '70s efforts on CD. These are High, Low, and In Between (1971), and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972), and both could be described as "neglected classics."
I was so impressed with this music when I first heard it, that I went on something of a Van Zandt binge. Consequently, it has been a while since I have actually listened to his records, probably a few years. Well, they certainly are as good as I remember them being, maybe even better.
What comes to mind for me in listening to these albums today is a phrase Greil Marcus coined some years ago to describe the Harry Smith Anthology. He called it music of "The old, weird America." What Marcus was describing was the "alternate" U.S., those out of the way places where cameras and recording equipment rarely venture. It is the cultural equivalent of the bat-shit crazy uncle who is holed up in the attic, a world that our collective chambers of commerce desperately try to keep hidden. Of course, this is where all of the interesting stuff exists, and for those of us who dig it, it is the only place to be.
The general public probably best knows of Townes Van Zandt as the writer of "Pancho and Lefty," which was a hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983. I love their version, but you have not heard this song until you have heard the original. It first appeared on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and is an amazingly personal piece of work. As much as I respect Nelson and Haggard, you could almost call their take of the song "sanitized for your protection." Listening to Van Zandt sing it, it is as if you are sitting around a hobo campfire next to the train tracks, and he is just telling a story about a couple of guys he met along the way.
The "traveling troubadour" character has been around forever, but it is only since the beginning of the 20th century that we have been able to preserve their tales via recordings. That Harry Smith Anthology I mentioned is a treasure trove of this type of stuff, as are the Robert Johnson songs. On the "white" side of the tracks, the legend of Hank Williams is a pretty good example, although there are plenty of others.
The extremely talented trust-fund kid Gram Parsons turned Keith Richards on to this world around the time that Van Zandt was recording these albums. The Rolling Stones were millionaires covering their assets in south of France when they recorded Exile On Main Street. Townes Van Zandt was practically homeless when he recorded High, Low, and In Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Forget about hard times for a moment though, as there was a tragedy some say the man never fully recovered from that really infuses these sessions. There is a small credit on the back of High, Low, and In Between that reads "Leslie Jo Richards 1952 - 1971." Obviously this was a friend of Van Zandt's, but in the newly-written liner notes, Colin Escott explains the situation. Leslie Jo was Townes' 18-year old girlfriend, and had been senselessly murdered during the recording of the album. It took him a long time to come to grips with this horrible situation, and one way of doing so was in writing the song "Snow Don't Fall" which appears on The Late Great.
Besides that awful reality though, there is a fabulous strain of weirdness to these albums. The opener of High, Low is titled "Two Hands," and Escott describes it as "happy clappy." He is right, it is a jaunty gospel tune that promises a much different listening experience than the one we are in for. Knowing the situation at the time of recording made me think that the sad "You Are Not Needed Now" was about Leslie Jo's death. As it turns out though, the song was written about Janis Joplin, who Van Zandt knew from their shared early days playing clubs in Houston.
Escott recounts a great story about the writing of "If I Needed You" in the liner notes, which may or may not be true. In fact, in listening to these two albums again, I am reminded of what it was that so drew me to Van Zandt in the first place. Every song may or may not have a tall tale behind it, which is one reason that they are so compelling in the first place. He is a "cult" artist of the first order, but that is only because he wore his weirdness on his sleeve. Townes Van Zandt was also one of the most talented songwriters to have ever lived, as these reissues prove conclusively. He was the real deal, and if you ever wonder what it is that old guys like myself are whining about when we complain about what's missing in music these days, this is it.