For those of us who discovered Townes Van Zandt late, after he’d already reaped the damages of his life, the image is seared into our collective memory. In his latter days, Van Zandt’s impossibly thin frame had weathered to the point that he looked like the fates had left him alive out of spite. Years of travelling, hard living, and an addictive streak had taken their toll, but he never lost touch with the crucible of experience and emotion that had fueled his songs from the beginning. His last performances were reportedly so full of emotion that several ended short with Van Zandt wracked by pain and emotion.
Such wasn’t always the case, a fact made plainly clear by Tomato’s recent reissues of Van Zandt’s early material. At the somewhat tender age of 24, Van Zandt eased onto the folk/country scene with songwriting wisdom beyond his years, as if he’d gotten the chance to look ahead at how the years would waste him and write from that perspective. Not everything Van Zandt wrote had one foot in the grave, but he was obviously attuned to the blues and even his songs about fresh love often carried the scent of impending heartbreak. Even at the beginning, he looked like a good wind could blow him across three counties, but his voice was strong and his songwriting possessed a pureness and clarity that he should have needed many more years to attain.
Right out of the gate with 1968’s For the Sake of the Song, Van Zandt already held several signature songs in hand—“Tecumseh Valley”, “Many a Fine Lady”, and “Waiting Around to Die”, and the title track—but it’s a wonder he got the chance to record any more. For the Sake of the Song may be a product of its time, when a specific “Nashville Sound” was no less entrenched than it is today, but the arrangements on Van Zandt’s first batch of songs are inappropriate at best, unintentionally hilarious at worst. Even without the benefit of hearing much better, much less cluttered versions of these songs, most listeners would agree that the production doesn’t match these songs at all. Producer Jack Clement has since apologized for over-producing For the Sake of the Song, but “overproduction” may be an understatement. Van Zandt entered the studio with nimble picking, an Old World flavor by way of Appalachia, and a confident voice. Clement met him with harpsichords, flutes, martial drum beats, and a whole host of backup singers that would make the most overproduced Southern Gospel album hang its head in disgrace.
It’s little wonder that Van Zandt began revisiting his best songs as soon as possible. His second album, 1969’s Our Mother the Mountain, already finds him reprising “Tecumseh Valley”. Gone is the brisk pace and percussion that sounds like horse’s hooves (that someone thought fit this bleak tale of a prostitute dying cold and alone) in favor of the more restrained version we recognize today. More importantly, Van Zandt makes crucial lyrical changes. On the For the Sake of the Song version, the protagonist “took to walking” and many men chose to “walk that road beside her”. On Our Mother the Mountain, she “took to whoring out on the streets with all the lust inside her . . . and it was many a man returned again to lay himself beside her”. The arrangement is still a bit spry—especially in light of Van Zandt’s stark live readings—but it’s a vast improvement. “Tecumseh Valley” is one of the saddest and most complete character portraits Van Zandt ever wrote, although it’s upstaged by the song that precedes it. “St. John the Gambler” is more mythic and abstract than “Tecumseh Valley” but it’s a heartrending portrait nevertheless, especially by the time Van Zandt sings, “she heard his laughter ride down from the mountain / And dance with her mother’s tears / To a funeral drawn of calico / ‘Neath the cross of 20 years”. It’s a perfect song—one that’ll make you lose several minutes of your life in a listening trance—and one of the first instances where the strings that follow Van Zandt’s songs are actually sympathetic to the subject and not a hindrance. Our Mother the Mountain also introduces “Kathleen”, “Snake Mountain Blues”, “Like a Summer Thursday”, and the spooky title cut—no slouches themselves.
The same year saw Van Zandt’s eponymous third album, where he refined even more of his previous songs. “For the Sake of the Song” loses the percussion clutter that mars it on Van Zandt’s first album, favoring a plaintive, stripped-down feel. “Waiting Around to Die” doesn’t change that much, favoring guitar and harmonica. Another instant classic shows up the relentless downward spiral of “Lungs”. By the time Delta Momma Blues followed, many of Zandt’s arrangement demons had been shed. Rather than reworking old songs (and this might have actually been the album for it; most of the production gets the heck out of Van Zandt’s way and lets his voice and guitar do the work), he reveals a strong new batch. “Tower Song” is still as heartbreaking as it ever was, while “Rake” and “Nothin’” are as ominous as any songs Van Zandt ever wrote. Like much of Van Zandt’s early material, “Rake” shows a tendency to offer the audience emotional cues like swelling horns (as if a line like “I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds / My laughter the Devil would frighten” wasn’t enough of a clue), but there’s nothing as egregious as the wall of voices that grace “The Velvet Voices” from For the Sake of the Song.
“Flyin’ Shoes” would mark the last of his releases on the Tomato label (following High, Low, and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt). The arrangements at this point are mostly generic country backing, but they support the songs instead of competing with them like some attention-starved three-year-old (“No Place to Fall” and “When She Don’t Need Me” are especially moving). The album does, however, feature two of Van Zandt’s most interesting arrangements. “Dollar Bill Blues” features a rabid slide guitar that mimics Van Zandt’s lyrics throughout the song, while the title track slips into a gorgeous piano/acoustic guitar interlude before settling back into the song’s easy lope.
Flying Shoes is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it showed that Van Zandt’s songs could really shine when left to their own devices, even if there’s an argument that the classic idea of just Van Zandt and his guitar is the best). Secondly, six songs here are revisions of cuts from The Nashville Sessions. Recorded in 1973, The Nashville Sessions languished in Poppy Records’ bankruptcy limbo before finally being released in 1993, by which time most of its songs had been released elsewhere (Live at the Old Quarter featured four of them). It’s dominated by full country arrangements, and in the few short years between these recordings and “Flyin’ Shoes, Van Zandt had trimmed songs like “Rex’s Blues”, “Pueblo Waltz”, “Loretta”, and “No Place to Fall” of nearly all their fat.
While all of this was going on, a quiet and unassuming live album called Live at the Old Quarter (released in 1977 but recorded in 1973) did as much as anything to cement Van Zandt’s repetition and image as a sombre tunesmith. It captures Van Zandt and his acoustic guitar before an appreciative Houston, Texas crowd, and it’s not long before he quiets most of the clinking beer bottles and stray conversations. This is the Van Zandt that most fans prefer, and with good reason. The song list is a veritable anthology of Van Zandt’s best and most loved songs, and it’s revelatory to hear most of them in this context. Van Zandt’s catalog has no shortage of live albums, and many of the later ones stand in stark contrast to the youthful personality exhibited on Live at the Old Quarter. 1989’s Live and Obscure, for example, captures an older Van Zandt reading many of these songs from a more weary, wisened perspective (with incredible renditions of “Pancho and Lefty” and “Nothin’”).
Arguably, once you hear Van Zandt in a strictly acoustic setting, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile yourself to some of the studio versions. Among singer/songwriters, only John Prine may have seen his early work as betrayed by awful country production. Still, these reissues are important. For one thing, they show the perfectionism that Van Zandt brought to his art as he revisited songs numerous times until he felt they were better. More importantly, there’s really not a bad song to be found on any of these albums, arrangement heresy or not. In our current musical landscape, when anyone who straps on an acoustic guitar is suddenly a singer-songwriter, these reissues of Van Zandt’s work offer a valuable look at one of the genre’s forefathers. Van Zandt always looked and sounded like he had lived his songs, and as scary as that got towards the end, the musical honesty in these songs should be required listening for anyone who wants to write a song.