The simple fact that this record exists is all kinds of awesome. (How’s that for unbiased journalism?) Years after his death, Townes Van Zandt remains an underrated figure. He’s found some success in the country music world – his “Pancho & Lefty” was a big hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in the early 1980s, and “If I Needed Someone” found a home with Emmylou Harris and country singer Don Williams even earlier. He’s been called “a songwriter’s songwriter,” and he’s been covered or cited as an influence by the likes of Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Neil Young, and Steve Earle, who named his son after Van Zandt and once famously proclaimed, to Van Zandt’s chagrin, that Townes was better than Dylan.
Still, though he’s been praised by icons and recordings of his songs have topped the country charts, Townes Van Zandt never quite entered the public consciousness. There are some legitimate reasons – in the 1960s and 70s, his disinterest in the recording process led to some questionable production choices on the part of his long-time producer, country music legend Cowboy Jack Clement (Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis). Clement would later come to regret those choices that pushed some of Townes’ best work well toward overproduction. Instead of capturing the spirit of the lonely troubadour, many early Van Zandt recordings are draped in strings, flutes and other accoutrements that were anything but for the sake of the song.
But just as often, the most notable impediment to Townes’ success was sadly Townes. A genius-level student and son of a prominent Texas family, he was diagnosed bipolar during his college years and subjected to shock treaments that destroyed his long-term memory. Alongside his emotional instability, his propensity for self-medication through heroin and alcohol left him saddled with addiction for his entire adult life. He was reclusive, an addict who once allegedly offered his publishing rights to his manager for $20 to buy drugs. He survived playing sporadic shows, staying in run-down trailers and shacks in Tennessee or Texas, releasing albums with decreasing regularity into the 1980s and beyond. After falling down stairs and fracturing his hip, an injury that went untreated for 8 days and prevented him from recording with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Van Zandt underwent surgery and then was checked out of a Nashville hospital against doctor’s orders on January 1, 1997. He began drinking again immediately, smoked a joint with a friend, and died at home just hours later. He was 52.
And now, some fifteen years afterward, Neurosis members Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till join forces with doom icon Wino to offer up tribute to the songwriter’s songwriter. Each contributes three Van Zandt tunes, appropriately stripped down, with minimal bells or whistles, melancholic and dark, often beautiful and occasionally stumbling.
Of the three on hand, it’s Von Till’s interpretation of Van Zandt’s poetic sadness that best succeeds. His “If I Needed Someone” opens the set, probably the best-known song on hand and among the best rendered. The gravelly vocals and the song’s lean arrangement are perfect – only voice and an acoustic guitar with the occasional touches of a dusty electric adding the melodic hook and acting as color. Later in the album’s running time, Von Till’s cover of “Black Crow Blues” works in similar format – with that Tom Waits/Mark Lanegan growl front and center. It’s truly captivating, as is “Snake Song,” which adds synth pads and a lone drum to the mix, less sparse but still haunting.
The second track, Kelly’s “St. John The Gambler” follows Von Till’s opening in terms of sparse arrangement, but in the end, more than being dramatic in its pacing, it’s painfully slow. Kelly lets the vocal melody bridge the gaps between sparsely strummed chords, but in doing so, none of the instruments provide steady propulsion, and the track staggers where it was meant to trudge ever forward. (His “Tecumseh Valley” suffers a similar fate.) Still, the one victory in his approach is that the lack of a sturdy underpinning puts most of the focus upon the lyrics, upon either of Van Zandt’s tales of untimely death. Kelly’s later entry “Lungs” rides distant electric guitar squalls to a better result, the strummed acoustic guitar riff providing a better foundation for the noisy wash around it.
Wino’s three tracks are the simplest in arrangement – “Rake” is merely Wino and his acoustic guitar, and it works brilliantly, while his version of the absolutely stellar “Nothing” is another album highlight. Performed in a loose and simple fashion, “Nothing” benefits from that looseness – Wino’s weathered voice, acoustic guitar, the occasional flourishes of a second guitar and a ghostly backing vocal. The power of these tunes is in the words and the images they provide, in the simple but perfect melodies that offer them up, and Wino’s open and understated musical accompaniment adds to that power by letting those words and melodies rise above.
I’ve been a fan of the good side of country music since I was a child – I am from the South, after all – and though I’d heard “Pancho & Lefty” countless hundreds of times prior, I discovered Townes Van Zandt’s work regrettably right around the time he died. Even with chart-topping hits and documentary films and some truly great records to his name, he’s still a too-well-kept secret, a poet and a singer whose best work rivals anyone’s but who exists now as he existed then, just outside the lines, out of sight and mind, his catalog rich and deep and waiting there to be discovered by most of us. Given that he’s overlooked as often as he is, it truly is wonderful that this record exists, that Townes is getting some of his due. The fact that those dues are coming from the metal community is doubly amazing, and it also shows the power and the scope of the man’s musical and lyrical gifts. It’s a great tribute to a great songwriter, a salute from artists most wouldn’t expect to feel kinship with Van Zandt’s work, and it’s an absolute must-hear for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the art and the power of the song.
Great work, gentlemen. Now start working on Vol. 2…