Despite the fact that Nashville stands on the shoulders of songwriters (one drive down the surreal fixture known as Music Row attests to that), it’s not a city that’s historically kind to their work. Songwriters craft the songs that create the city’s body, but Nashville’s face wears whatever slick makeup the public favors that week. Hence, you can listen to virtually any country song and predict where the pedal steel fills will come in and where to expect the fiddle solo. Compound that with the fact that country videos are fast becoming indistinguishable from sweaty Ricky Martin clips and you begin to suspect that the songwriter’s inspiration gets lost somewhere along the line.
Nashville, though, is also fiercely protective of its own. Certain songwriters are giants, and Steve Earle himself will ride you out on a rail if you speak ill of most of them. Foremost is Townes Van Zandt, of whom Earle said he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and proclaim the best songwriter in the world. Van Zandt is a Legend (capital “L”), not just because his songs are capable of stopping a prison riot with their beauty, but also because Van Zandt’s gift seemed to consume him. Van Zandt was a drinker, a drug addict, a lover of women, a gambler, and a poet who didn’t miss an observation no matter which of his worlds it sprang from. The crosscurrents of a hard life’s toll and the dark nature of his songs turned many of his last performances into on-stage breakdowns.
Better than anyone else, Van Zandt seemed fully aware of his talent’s dark inclinations, and he left a lot of what he called his “three a.m. blues” unrecorded. Still, the clarity with which he navigated the darkness solidifies his reputatation. His songs teem with prostitutes, drifters, conflicted fathers, grieving mothers, and everything in-between, most of them conveyed in a voice so assured that you’d swear he channeled the restless dead. If you think that’s hyperbole, really listen to the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty”, “Waitin’ Around to Die”, or “St. John the Gambler”, and convince yourself that Van Zandt wasn’t hardwired to something scary.
What creates a bit of a problem is the multitude of times the same songs have seen the light of day. There’s no shortage of Townes Van Zandt live CDs, each offering varying degrees of quality. Epitomized by the criminally out-of-print Live at the Old Quarter, these ragged testaments to Van Zandt’s lifetime of touring document his folksy side pretty thoroughly. They also offer every listener the opportunity to form their own obscure visions of what marks each song’s finest moment. For this reviewer, the definitive “Pancho & Lefty” comes laced with flutes and a broken voice on Sugar Hill’s Live and Obscure, a choice that probably wouldn’t get much agreement from the ranks of Townes Van Zandt admirers.
Texas Rain poises itself to complicate the matter further. Recorded throughout the early ’90s, it offers new versions of some of Van Zandt’s best-known songs, with a high-caliber roster of duet partners. Van Zandt and his longtime producer Kevin Eggers also decided to gussy up the arrangements, enlisting a stellar rogues gallery of Nashville and Texas border talent.
It’s a perilous idea, along the lines of painting an ear back onto Van Gogh’s Self Portrait. The rapport that Van Zandt created with just his voice and guitar makes any studio polish seem unnecessary, maybe even sacriligious. The situation is reminiscent of John Prine. One listen to his stripped-down live renditions and you can’t help but view the countrified original versions as little more than desecrations, the presence of a Nashville producer as little more than a merchant in the temple.
Not so with Texas Rain, though. Van Zandt’s choices of duet partners is inspired, and many of these songs gain new life. Rather than the grave-robbing repackaging that’s destined to follow any artist’s death, this album marks a crucial addition to the Van Zandt legacy. His duet with Emmylou Harris on “If I Needed You” contains brisk, smiling affection. The inclusion of Freddy Fender, Rubin Ramos, Doug Sahm, and Augie Meyer gives a bilingual version of “Pancho & Lefty” truly windswept stateliness (with some gorgeous, understated horns). “Waiting Around to Die” boasts a more robust sound, but Calvin Russell matches Van Zandt stanza for stanza in capturing the song’s sense of resigned personal desolation. “Kathleen” sparkles with delicate piano and absolutely transcendent harmonies courtesy of The Chromatics.
Probably most fitting of all are the two duets with Willie Nelson. Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a huge hit with “Pancho & Lefty”, and Nelson’s weathered voice perfectly complements Van Zandt’s material. If Van Zandt had never sung a note, he could have acted as Nelson’s version of Bernie Taupin and country would have still been changed forever. The pair sound like buddies strumming at a picnic on “No Lonesome Tune”. On their bleak version of “Marie” (which Nelson also reprises on the recent Van Zandt tribute Poet), the two effortlessly trade lyrics, and Nelson delivers the song’s soul-crushing conclusion (“She just rolled over and went to Heaven / My little boy safe inside”) with fitting matter-of-fact grief.
A few cuts don’t work (James McMurtry’s vocals on “Snowin’ on Raton”, for example, are nice but too close to Van Zandt’s to make the collaboration special), but all in all, Texas Rain highlights two important aspects of Van Zandt’s work. First, there’s the humanity that coursed through his music, the observations of a man who apparently laughed at life’s joys with the same power that he mourned its cruelties. Secondly, there’s the flexibility of what he wrote. Many people had hits with Van Zandt’s material, even if he never had any, and Texas Rain shows his material adapting to not only new arrangements, but to different singers’ styles as well. Purists will find Eggers’ production to be too slick, too easy on the ear. It’s a valid complaint — to a point. Van Zandt’s music needs an angular menace, a shadow in its heart, but no amount of production is going to bleach those elements from the songs. Even though the horns that close “Two Girls” are out-of-place, it still ranks as one of Van Zandt’s most mysterious songs. Even though Van Zandt’s voice on Texas Rain is the strongest it had been in years (the result of a cleaned-up lifestyle), it still resonates with loneliness.
It’s unclear why it took nearly a decade for Texas Rain to slip from rumored existence to actual release. From accounts, though, the album will be followed by three more CDs (around 60 duets were apparently recorded with everyone from John Prine to Bono) and a box set encapsulating the entire host of sessions. Sure, there’s no substitute for hearing the originals, but Texas Rain acts as quiet memorial to Van Zandt’s lasting influence. As interest in his legacy grows, it’s a fitting monument to a talent that affected nearly every songwriter it touched. There’ll probably never be a statue of Townes Van Zandt in downtown Nashville, but the songwriters punching the clock on Music Row know about him, and that’s a start.