townes-late-great[xrr rating=4.0/5]Examining the status of Townes Van Zandt in the year 2013 is a lot like looking at how people feel today about the television show “Arrested Development.” Very few really gave a crap when they should have during the active years, but now just about everyone seems to be a fan (and claims they were way back when). Omnivore Recordings clearly recognizes the resurgence of interest in the late Van Zandt, likely due to a flood of books, documentaries, album packages and artist endorsements over the past decade, and they’re getting in on the game by reissuing some of his finest work.

For the indoctrinated, Van Zandt’s name would be listed at or near the top of the Great American Songbook, should one exist. You’ve heard his songs, though probably not performed by him. He’s known as “the songwriter’s songwriter,” as it seems only fellow artists were paying attention, and there are few that carry his gift for lyric and melody. He didn’t have the most distinct voice, but he could bend it across genres and across the gamut of his frequently dark emotions, no matter how obtuse. Some say Van Zandt couldn’t get out of his own troubled way, while others feel he suffered from a case of hard luck, but the fact of that matter is that his songs sound so effortless and familiar, it’s as if they’ve always been there. Hearing something like “Greensboro Woman” or the utterly heartbreaking perfection of “Snow Don’t Fall” wouldn’t stop someone in their tracks unless they were really listening intently. But once you’re in, you’re really in, riding the cavernous rollercoaster of Van Zandt’s psyche.

There’s no better starting point than these reissues, Van Zandt’s fifth and sixth albums. Released during a time considered to be the peak of his recording career, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt just might be its pinnacle. High, Low came first, and it carries more of an overall spiritual, upbeat vibe than a typical Van Zandt record, but he’s clearly conflicted. He speaks of finding Jesus when he’s lonesome on the rollicking gospel of “Two Hands” and of being lead to the light during “When He Offers His Hand,” both excellent songs, but Van Zandt is at his best when he’s at his worst. The talkin’ blues of “No Deal” finds him at his most humorous, but his true colors shine here as he reveals, “If there is no whiskey and women, Lord/ Behind them heavenly doors/ I’m gonna take my chances down below.”

While High, Low might be more varied and accessible, The Late Great is considered Van Zandt’s landmark. Leaning more toward his country sweet spot, these songs are the perfect staging ground for Van Zandt as a roamer of land and of women. On “No Lonesome Tune” he sings of a wandering eye done wandering, while the melancholic “Sad Cinderella” paints a picture of girl looking for love down all the wrong streets. What’s also notable here is that prior to The Late Great, Van Zandt had only released a single cover song. Here there are three, including a spot on take of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’,” Guy Clark’s “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya” and Bobby Helms’ “Fräulein,” apparently the favorite song of Van Zandt’s dad and the first he learned to play on guitar. But this record might be best known for the string of hits it produced for everyone but Van Zandt. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a top hit in 1983 by covering “Pancho & Lefty,” while Emmylou Harris also tackled that song prior to reaching number 3 (along with Don Williams) in 1981 with the heartfelt country-folk of “If I Needed You.”

Omnivore is doing a noble thing by getting these records in front of a new, wider audience, and especially on vinyl. That said these are direct reproductions, albeit re-mastered, of the albums as they originally existed, and the only shortfall is that there’s no bonus material. Van Zandt certainly didn’t lack for demos or live footage, and it would be nice to hear how these songs took shape or varied over time. But then again, those who missed the first go around should feel blessed they’re getting a second shot.

2 Comments

  1. Doyle Gaines

    July 22, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    I’m starting to hear of singer/songwriters (especially in Texas) who claim Townes as an influence in their musical development. Well, it may be so, but it sure isn’t showing up in their music. Townes was one-of-a-kind, and the quality of his songwriting ability was stunning. Furthermore, he didn’t use his ability to get rich, or get famous, or get a deal with a “record company”. He just did what he did because he could, and I doubt if he cared much what the movers and shakers in the music business thought of him.

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  2. Mike Randall

    July 23, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Thanks for your comment, Doyle. You’re definitely right. Though, I don’t think he cared what *anybody* thought of him. And I don’t know if all that many songwriters have the skill to actually channel his influence. It was so effortless to him, and that can’t be taught or learned.

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