Townes Van Zandt
From Tomato Records:
In 2002, Tomato Records began restoring Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s entire body of recorded songs to print, and in the process exposing a new generation of fans to one of America’s most important songwriters. The New York City-based independent record label was home to Van Zandt for over a decade, beginning in 1967 with its original incarnation, Poppy Records. Over the years, Tomato/Poppy would release nine albums by Van Zandt that would virtually define the singer/songwriter genre. Despite never achieving mainstream commercial success, the songs endured, and now more than ever in his 52-year lifetime, Townes Van Zandt is receiving the recognition he so completely deserves.
The first release in last year’s Van Zandt series was the previously unreleased duets collection: Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings, which featured the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Doug Sahm. It was followed by the first ever Van Zandt “best of” collection, The Best of Townes Van Zandt. The cream of the crop, however, was the reissue of 1977’s Live At The Old Quarter. Commonly considered Townes’ great masterpiece, the album which was recorded four years earlier in 1973, documents Townes performing alone with his guitar in front of a hometown Houston audience that hung on his every word-captivated by the beauty of a man and his songs.
Tomato now reissues six of Van Zandt’s studio albums: For the Sake of the Song, Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, Flyin’ Shoes and Nashville Sessions. In their sum, they tell Townes’ story, following his evolution as a songwriter. Individually, each album is a complete statement in itself, featuring a unique body of songs, distinct production and consistently sublime moments of both self examination and storytelling. It was Townes’ ability to explore and express the darkest corners of the soul that was perhaps his greatest gift. But there’s more: gorgeous melodies, astute poetry, intricate fingerpicked acoustic guitar work and the occasional light revealing itself at the end of the tunnel.
From the very outset, Van Zandt’s debut album, For The Sake Of The Song, recorded in 1967 when he was only 24-years-old, Townes firmly established himself as a wordsmith beyond comparison. It includes such Van Zandt classics as “Tecumseh Valley” and the eponymous “For the Sake of the Song.” The title track has had such lasting value that it’s become part of the everyday musical lexicon. Throughout the album, Townes sings with a fresh youthful voice, but also a knowledge and understanding of the human condition and its fragility that far exceeded his years. Recorded in Nashville and produced by country hitmaker Cowboy Jack Clement, the album is very much of its time with slick arrangements and crisp, multi-layered instrumentation.
(Our Mother the Mountain was recorded one year later, and released in 1969. It’s one of Van Zandt’s most cohesive and realized albums in his catalog: a mystical depiction of Townes’ travels and his affinity for the state of Colorado. Beautiful love songs like “She Came And She Touched Me” and “Kathleen” trade time with soul-bearing songs of anguish, “Snake Mountain Blues” and “Tecumseh Valley.” The latter includes the controversial verse that was originally cut for commercial purposes from the For the Sake of the Song version: “So she turned to whorin’ out on the streets with all the lust inside her, and it was many a man that returned again to lay himself beside her.” This is just one example of Poppy’s clear decision at the time to not hide Van Zandt’s dark side in hopes of gaining mainstream accessibility. This is also reflected in Our Mother The Mountain’s production. The snappy guitars, vocal harmonies and uptempo rhythms of his previous effort were replaced with haunting string sections, lonesome Dobro and whining harmonicas.
His third album and second release of 1969, the self-titled, Townes Van Zandt, found a more confident and relaxed Townes easing into his own distinct and natural style of composing and recording. Townes revisited some of the songs from his debut, but gave them new arrangements and the overall production grew more sparse and folksy. It was here that Townes introduced masterpieces such as “Columbine,” “Colorado Girl” and “Lungs.” In hindsight, Townes was at the height of his creative output.
Delta Momma Blues, as the title implies, was Townes’ overwhelmingly successful attempt at a blues album. Released in 1971, Townes had not abandoned his country folk roots, but rather interwove those roots with his love for the blues; a love that began as a teenager, when he studied the works of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Merging many styles of music, the album is distinctly Townes, but unlike anything else that he would ever do. And while the lyrics are often dour, there is a strange carefree attitude that pervades the music, an example being “Rake”: “The sun she would come and beat me back down, but every cruel day had its nightfall. I’d welcome the stars with wine and guitars full of fire and forgetful.”
For all practical purposes, Flyin’ Shoes was Townes last major studio album for Tomato Records. Recorded and released in 1978, it is an interesting chapter in the Van Zandt cannon, especially in light of Chip Moman’s production, which is popping with syncopated backbeats and stinging electric guitar on “Dollar Bill Blues,” and counterbalanced by gentle pedal steel, mandolin and piano like that of the title track. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians lend a hand on this date, including Jimmy Day, who backed Elvis, Hank Williams and others and is regarded as one of the greatest country steel guitar players. Featuring Van Zandt classics like “Loretta” and “No Place to Fall,” Flyin’ Shoes also includes a rare cover song, Townes’ own interpretation of Bo Didley’s “Who Do You Love,” which is perhaps the most rocking up-tempo cut ever recorded by Van Zandt.
Nashville Sessions, could perhaps be regarded as the missing link in Van Zandt’s catalog. Taken from a 1973 recording session, the album wasn’t completed and released until 20 years later. Various accounts as to the reason for these sessions being scrapped remain. In addition to songs such as, “Loretta,” “Rex’ Blues” and “Pueblo Waltz” that had already been re-recorded by the time of its release, Nashville Sessions marked the studio debut of songs like “White Freightliner Blues” and “Two Girls,” which had long been favorites in Townes’ concert performances. It is Townes most straight-ahead country album and the arrangements owe much to the city of Nashville where the original sessions took place.
Townes Van Zandt died too soon, before he was witness to the legacy his music would create. The six Tomato studio albums are a lasting testament to one of the greatest singer/songwriters that has ever graced the world with his songs.
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