Something I've never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction proof of their authenticity as an artist. Why can't they understand the drugs and booze which resulted in these people's death also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died than through his body of work.
I mention Parson specifically because of his associations with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt, never managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way as people like Parson.
Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. Turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
Most of his income came from other musicians covering his material as his own albums didn't sell that well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two disc set of studio out takes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt's most productive time as an artist. Now, the label who released that collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
While you might think there's something eerily prescient about the title of the latter, it was more of an example of Van Zandt's sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded "Pancho and Lefty", later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed during the last few years of his life Van Zandt had earned around $100,000.00 per year from royalties.
Musically Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like "Two Hands" and "When He Offers His Hand" on High, Low And In Between are specifically gospel, the most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly" from the same disc and "Sad Cinderella" and "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
It's like he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and find a way of turning them into song. Yet, he doesn't try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people's feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secrete hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls.
While his songs are always about something in specific, he managed to make it feel like he was singing about something you'd experienced. "When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he's grown tall and strong/And your dread misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess,where you plannin' to turn to?" ("Sad Cinderella" Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)
When you hear him sing your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there's something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there's less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren't used to hearing. By eschewing the flourishes and decorative elements so many singers employ, material, which in other's hands would risk sounding mawkish, remains emotionally honest.
One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of some other performer. The natural reaction to this is to automatically think, wow he sounds just like so and so. It's only then you remember the song was released more then a decade before the one it sounded like. That's when you begin to appreciate just how much of an influence he was on those who came after him.
Like the human condition Van Zand't songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of "Pancho and Lefty", "All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose". Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw "hang around" out of kindness? It's these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him.
Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that". Whether you agree with that sentiment or not after listening to Van Zandt's music is up to you. However one thing you won't be able to deny is this man was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
When lessor lights are held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse isn't it about time we start to recognize those among the troubled who were the truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to popular music it's about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won't believe what you've been missing for all these years.
(Article first published at Blogcitics.org as Music Review - Townes Van Zandt High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)
(Originally posted May 2013)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.