On a fevered evening several Fridays ago, I set out to learn a little more about either Phil Ochs or Townes Van Zandt in the hopes of trying to expand, if even just a little, my knowledge of revered songwriters from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. I ended up passing over A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt for a copy of Pleasures Of The Harbor. Failing to really connect with that album, I quickly abandoned the project altogether. I put Van Zandt on hold and remained uninformed.
Therefore, I can’t now wistfully recall his gentle voice or lyrics that seemed to have been piped straight from his heart. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard “Pancho and Lefty” and have little to offer on the influence of Lightning Hopkins on Van Zandt’s work. In The Beginning can begin to forgive some of those sins for others and myself. It’s an engaging collection of previously unreleased songs and figures to be one of the logical places for people interested in Van Zandt’s work to now start listening. This works as a fan piece because it unearths new material but can also stand on its own for people coming to his music for the first time. In The Beginning contains enough bright spots to send new listeners out in search of more of Van Zandt’s work, which may be its strongest point.
A collection of ten songs that predate Van Zandt’s official debut by two years, the album was recorded in 1966 as part of his first Nashville sessions. The songs feature some really nice acoustic guitar playing in which his finger picking fills the sound out more than adequately. Despite the fact that most of the songs are comprised of just voice and guitar, few feel sparse. The ones that feel the most awkward are those performed with full band arrangements. At the time of this recording, Van Zandt seems to have been at his strongest on his own.
Some of the work featured on In The Beginning, despite having been done at such an early stage in his career, offers solid evidence of his place as an influence on a generation of songwriters. On “Waitin’ for the Day”, he’s both the aching lover (“Girl, I don’t know why you always have to try / To hurt me, to make me feel ashamed”) and the heartbreaker lying in wait (“But some day by and by / You’re gonna be the one to cry / And walk the floor and sadly call my name”.) At times, you can specifically hear his influence on Lyle Lovett, Vic Chestnutt, and I would say Dwight Yoakam, though I believe he’s more of a Buck Owens-man.
On “Gypsy Friday”, the writing comes off as an uneasy mix of stereotypical, easy-going, Nashville country and bright-eyed hippie optimism. Here Van Zandt sounds like the wet-behind-the-ears writer that he still must have been when making these recordings. On “Maryetta’s Song”, he gets tangled up in his own Dylan-worship (“Then a virgin mistress again she comes / Now is she no longer free / To play upon her gypsy drums for me”.) “When All Your Dream Lovers Die”, one of the best songs of the bunch, shows how great songwriters can start out with clichés (“When your sweet words begin to turn black on their vines / And they bear their fruit no longer”) and end up with something that resonates deeper (“Lay down your love songs and leave them behind / I’ll show you something stronger”.) That line waits two songs into the discs’ strong second half. The songs are stronger lyrically and start to get at the heart of what makes Van Zandt’s music continue to resonate. “Black Jack Mama” is a Bringing It All Back Home-style rocker that he is able to pull off with minimal accompaniment. The disc’s closing songs, “Big Country Blues” and “Black Crow Blues”, both succeed on their foundation of Van Zandt’s naked compassion. At his best, he can be vulnerable without being weak, romantic without seeming out of touch.
This entire project is an obvious labor of love, his ex-wife acted as Executive Producer and the packaging contains four paintings by Will Van Zandt, and it’s far from a wasted effort. It’s an engaging, warts-and-all collection that can act as an open front door for new listeners or as an insightful look into the early days of a respected songwriter.