Wednesday, July 19, 2017

First of the Texas Troubadours

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Six
Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

Townes Van Zandt was a notoriously unreliable performer. Before his death in 1997, audiences reported he had only two modes: an unbelievable clarity and rapport with the audience, coupled with sublime lyrical sensitivity, or an absolute drunken mess. Throughout his career, his attempts to numb his bipolar disorder with substances always undermined his performance persona. But for four nights at a Houston dive-bar in 1973, he produced something unmatched in the history of Texas music.

Country music fans may remember Townes Van Zandt as author of such classics as “Pancho and Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” and “White Freight Liner Blues.” He produced six albums in five years between 1968 and 1973, often working at a feverish pace made possible only by mental illness and cocaine. His songs bespoke a bleak pessimism that, paradoxically, gave his cultish fans great hope that they weren’t suffering alone. He became an underground legend.

As this prolific period wound down, Van Zandt played four shows at the Old Quarter, a venue co-owned by his friend and bandmate Rex Bell. Producer Earl Willis recorded these shows on a portable four-track system, apparently for posterity, never intending to release them. However, Van Zandt descended into a creative dry spell, corresponding, probably not coincidentally, with a healthy new relationship. Without his malaise, and the drugs,he lost much of his creative motivation.

The recordings feature Van Zandt, alone on stage with just his guitar, uncharacteristically sober and receptive to his audience. The recording, chosen from Willis’ crude recordings, involves such concert business as announcements about where to find the cigarette machines, and apologies for the broken air conditioning. But it also includes some of the most tender and insightful recordings a damaged genius ever put forward. The austere arrangements and clinking background emphasize Van Zandt’s lyrical complexity.

Townes Van Zandt
He opens with “Pancho and Lefty,” his then-current single, about a Mexican bandit’s betrayal. Both Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson had hits with this track, but both embroidered it with radio-friendly flourishes highlighting their own celebrity. Van Zandt, playing solo, keeps focus on his lyrics, a mournful exploration of the forces with make a criminal into a folk hero. The idea that we need heroes only after their dead is poignant, coming from Van Zandt.

This track list reads like Van Zandt’s Greatest Hits. He plays several of his classics, like “Rex’s Blues” or “Tecumseh Valley,” with the unornamented authenticity of somebody producing work he loves. Between his own classics, Van Zandt also includes tracks by artists who influenced him, like Merle Travis, Bo Diddley, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. This remarkably inclusive set of influences goes heavily toward explaining Van Zandt’s unusual style, quirky songwriting, and widespread fandom outside genre circles.

Part-time fans and corporate executives long classed Townes Van Zandt as country music. This isn’t entirely unfair, considering how many of his songs have been covered by artists like Don Williams and Steve Earle. But like many artists most immediately impacted by his music, including Lyle Lovett and Gillian Welch, he fit poorly into country’s mold. The distinctive mix of country, folk, blues, and other roots genres has some fans speaking of just-plain “Texas Music.”

Because of its essential austerity, this album provides insights into not only Van Zandt’s influences, but also his artistic vision. His classic studio albums were larded with Nashville sidemen and sophisticated productions, presumably to create chart hits. But this overhandling not only produced no radio-friendly singles, it frequently pointed up Van Zandt’s weaknesses as a vocalist. Like Bob Dylan, Van Zandt had a vision, but wasn’t a pretty singer. What he had, was insight.

Van Zandt’s production team released this album in 1977, four years after it was recorded, five years after his last studio album. Basically, he needed the money. Though he’d pulled some songwriter’s royalties from cover versions, his period of happy inactivity left him functionally penniless. Van Zandt released only one studio album between 1972 and 1987. Unfortunately, his eventual return to the studio would result in more overproduced pablum, presumably to capitalize on increasing name recognition.

Standing between his career bookends, this album, the most stripped and honest he’d ever record, highlights not only Van Zandt’s artistry, but also the way he created a pinch-point of Texas music. Though others blended the state’s reach of country, blues, and folk before him, Van Zandt coupled that with raw poetry few peers ever approached. Without the studio crutch, this album makes plain his stylistic vision, and keeps his music alive for coming generations.

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