As of New Year’s Day, 2010, Townes Van Zandt will have been dead for 13 years. In that time, there have been remarkably few Van Zandt tribute discs, when you consider the long shadow he still casts. 2007’s There’s a Hole in Heaven Where Some Sin Slips Through found artists like Steve Wynn, Willard Grand Conspiracy, and Johnny Dowd tipping their hats, but it’s nearly impossible to find now. The most notable was 2001’s Poet, a heavyweight affair stocked with tributes by songwriters like Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, and more. It felt very much like a family affair, as many of its participants had actually known Van Zandt. It too spent some time out of print, but appears to have been reissued with a reshuffled tracklist. Certain artists obviously consider it a personal calling to keep Van Zandt’s memory alive: Lyle Lovett has recorded several covers, Guy Clark often included a Van Zandt song on each of his recent records, and Steve Earle just released an all-Van Zandt covers record.
Nearly a decade down the line, Introducing Townes Van Zandt Via the Great Unknown takes on the always admirable task of shining a spotlight on Van Zandt’s songs, this time with interpretations from more obscure artists (thus the “Great Unknown” part of the title). It’s hard to imagine any serious Van Zandt tribute being disappointing, so it’s not like Introducing has much to worry about, even though it’s much less reverent than any Van Zandt tribute so far. The underlying belief of Introducing is that the song will shine through, and this collection certainly puts that to the test, recalling — a little bit — 2005’s overlooked electronica tribute to Black Sabbath, Everything Comes & Goes.
Don’t worry, this isn’t an electronica tribute, but Introducing does put its cards on the table right off the bat with Lessons in Time’s loose and spectral “At My Window”, which sounds like it’s being broadcast over a ghost radio. Thomas Denver Jonnson’s “To Live is to Fly” is more uptempo, but no less airy, his breathy vocals coming through nicely. Loophole & Ciaran Kirby’s “Lungs” takes an insistent, percussive approach. Great Lake Swimmers tweak “Our Mother the Mountain” only a little, but bring a little nighttime clarity to one of Van Zandt’s spookiest songs. Four songs into the disc and it’s obvious that these artists are intent on honoring Van Zandt by viewing his songs through the prism of their own styles.
Most often this works really well. Even on the more conventional renditions, you can hear Van Zandt’s descendants digging to find the heart of his songs. J. Tillman’s “My Proud Mountains”, for example, is little more than his vocals atop minimal guitar and piano, but it sounds like it’s floating out across a rugged and beautiful landscape — proof that that not everything has to be a total re-envisioning or deconstruction. Christina Kulukundis’ take on “If I Needed You” is awash in flecks of mandolin and a straightforward vocal approach reminiscent of Emmylou Harris.
Van Zandt was an old soul from the beginning, but his body and spirit went through a lot of turbulence before he couldn’t go any further. Over the course of nearly 30 years of recordings, he gave his fans several periods from which to pick their favorite Van Zandt persona, from the young buck full of talent but wrapped in too much Nashville polish to the lone acoustic troubadour, to the dying man of his final recordings. So each of us has whatever Townes Van Zandt we need — the trick is to relax and let an album like Great Unknown do its work, free of any “mess up my favorite song and it’s your ass” preconceptions from the listener. And this listener, at least, has found that this tribute gets stronger and stronger the more time you spend with it, when its own charms become apparent. Every year after his passing, Van Zandt’s legend grows, but as Great Unknown proves, the songs are still with us — and that’s something to be very thankful for.