Townes Van Zandt

Dead of a heart attack at age 52 on January 1, 1997, Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt can't enjoy his recent resurrection. He'd surely get a kick out of the recent tribute album Poet, which assembled the likes of Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, and the Cowboy Junkies (who are planning their own trib), not to mention what's becoming a deluge of quality archive projects.

The Best of Townes Van Zandt, compiled by the label (Tomato) that issued the bulk of his albums during his lifetime, is a perfect starting point for the Townes novice. Oft-covered touchstones such as "Pancho & Lefty," "Flyin' Shoes" and "If I Needed You" are marvels of lyrical detail and sonic nuance, the latter tune in particular as heart-rending in its "come ease my pain" sentiment as it is unyieldingly romantic -- the kind of song a bride and groom could sing to one another at the altar. A couple of duets ("No Place to Fall," with Nelson, and "Waiting Around to Die," with Calvin Russell) highlight the collaborative spirit that marked much of Van Zandt's songwriting. And a whooping, barnstorming cover of "Who Do You Love" plus a transcendent appropriation of the Stones' "Dead Flowers" (last heard over the credits of the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski) paint the singer as a skillful interpreter.

A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt is a major find for hard-core Van Zandt fans. Recorded by his label at the time, Poppy Records, at Carnegie Hall on November 26, 1969, the tapes to the acoustic solo show disappeared into the vaults until recently. At only age 25, Van Zandt was already in full flight, one minute jawboning his way through a drop-dead hilarious shaggy-dog drinkin' tale ("Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues") or a dark satire ("Talking KKK Blues"), the next offering up the tenderest of wry reflections ("Like a Summer's Thursday," "She Came and Touched Me"). In a clear, resonant voice not yet tainted by what would become years of personal abuse, Van Zandt as a young man holds forth so much extant storytelling promise that it's no wonder he was so beloved, and subsequently mourned, by his peers. All sentiment and hype aside, though, in the case of Van Zandt, well . . . death becomes him.


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