My wife is obsessed with the current US hit show ‘Nashville‘.
In this show the hot cheerleader from Heroes is all grown up (so at least you don’t get to feel creepy when appreciating her attributes) and is a super bitchy Country singer in the burgeoning titular Country Pop market surrounding the city. It basically charts the highs and lows of a scene that is everything the real life Curb Records effectively went to war with Hank Williams III over as he clung desperately to preserving the Outlaw Country roots of his father and Grandfather by attempting to make real music, gritty music, dare I say it, soulful music. In essence Nashville depicts the outward face of Country Music to be big, bold, bright, fun, saccharine and sparkly.
Everything that the moody, sarcastic, troubled Townes Van Zandt was not.
For those unfamiliar with the legacy of possibly the greatest song writer to never score a hit on the Billboard Country Music Chart, a better starting point would be ‘Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol 1‘ which was released last year by My Proud Mountain, a label specifically created to honour the man. It serves as a great tribute and a faithful introduction to the music that should rightly be revered along side the works of his more famous peers.
This second volume has been released to celebrate the fact that the man would have been 70 last month and features nine more Townes Van Zandt originals but covered and given new life by a variety of heavyweight artists including Yob man Mike Scheidt, Nate Hall from USX, Baroness’ John Baizley, Katie Jones, Stevie Floyd (Dark Castle, Taraus) and Dorthia Cottrell (Windhand). One thing is clear from all the contributions from these artists is the reverence and passion they have for the material they are performing.
Take Nate Hall stalking about the project in 2013 for example; “It happens every now and then. I’ll be in a bar, some guy will declare that Townes Van Zandt is his favorite, settle in to a well-rehearsed, perfectly tuned and meticulously finger-picked rendition of ……………..whatever. I’m gone, I can’t take it. I’m not buying anybody’s domesticated, presentable, un-slurred, smiley faced and emasculated version of the man. And I ain’t selling it either. If I’m going to play one of Mr. Van Zandt’s songs, it’s going make anyone in earshot a little uncomfortable. It will harsh some mellows, trigger some bad memories, some tears, bring it…..way down. Hell-fire man, play them in that hazy, beautiful, dangerous, wild and unreasonable place that birthed them!”
Make no mistake this is as far flung from the modern day image of clean living Country Music as you can get. But enough history, there is a whole internet out there for you to find this stuff – let’s talk about the music.
This collection features some of the songs that many would consider his most enduring, for example ‘Pancho & Lefty’, recorded for his 1972 album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt but gained recognition as a number one hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Here covered by Nate Hall, the song is reclaimed as a cautionary fire side tale of a life as an outlaw.
Also performed by Nate Hall, ‘Waiting Around To Die’ is a swirling, breathless take on the song. Joined on vocals by Stevie Floyd the song feels urgent and tense, the rising and falling strumming patterns matching the desperation of the lyrics. His final contribution recalls the gravity he delivered on the previous album as he delivers a stunning rendition of ‘Our Mother The Mountain’, again female vocals, this time provided by Dorthia Cottrell is other worldly and dripping with emotion.
Yob’s Mike Scheidt opts for the tender, introspective, solo approach. Often just augmented by a picked guitar his covers are moments of thoughtful pause from various periods in Van Zandt‘s life; ‘To Live Is To Fly’ showcases his voice with a lazy whiskey soaked drawl pining for lost love, eventually swelled by female backing vocals the song is one of hope. Contrastingly ‘Rake’ is more sombre and regretful, that touch of bitterness present in Van Zandt‘s song writing adding a trademark tinge of gloom and ‘Highway Kind’ is beautiful in its world weary determination.
‘Saint John The Gambler’, previously a heavy weight slice of soul searching performed by Scott Kelly, is re-imagined as a lavish duet by Baroness’ John Baizley and Katie Jones; the interplay between the two vocal styles seems lighter on the surface but as the song wears on the sense of melancholy is no less apparent. With possibly the most expansive arrangement of instruments the music swells with hope only to drift away like waking from a dream.
It is moving to the point of tears at times.
On ‘For the Sake of the Song’ they give a swaying bittersweet musing on a troubled relationship; Townes’ own words saying thoughts seemingly shared after the fact, weighty and articulate. Closing out the album with ‘If I Needed You’, a hit song in 1981 for the duet of Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, the call and response of promised love is an upbeat ending to a stunning and emotional album and shines with the bright light of hope.
The first collection was a great journey to raise awareness of Van Zandt to a new audience and pay homage to the legacy of a man who never got the credit for the music he tried to share with the world. This second collection is done with love; love for these songs, for the artist and this shows through in the way they have been covered with dedication and passion. It is a touching insight to the contributing artists themselves to feel their emotions for the lyrics and the music through Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol II.
This is the heart and soul, as sad and as raw as it may be, of true Country Music whatever the Billboard chart might try to tell you.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden