On a recent afternoon, I was plowing through a box of 45s at a used-record store when I stumbled upon "No Place to Fall," a seven-inch by Townes Van Zandt. This discovery struck me as both exciting, because I didn't know a Van Zandt single had ever been issued, and absurd, since no record-company decision-maker worth his weight in cynicism would ever have thought such a release had a chance in hell of becoming a hit. But after I gave it a spin on my home jukebox, the doomy elegance of the composition promptly put me under the same spell that likely blinded the aforementioned executive to seemingly obvious commercial realities. It would have been a smash, I was certain, if only enough people had heard it.
Van Zandt's career was haunted by crushed dreams such as this one. A Texas native who died on the first day of 1997 at age 52, he earned consistent critical praise and the admiration of his peers. But the vast majority of the public heard his songs only when they were covered by folks such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who topped the country charts in 1983 with Van Zandt's elegiac "Pancho & Lefty." His own recordings tended to drift inexorably toward the cut-out bins -- too serious and literate for the typical C&W fan, too delicate and downbeat for rockers -- in parallel with his own journey from fresh-faced truth seeker to worn-out music-biz casualty.
In all probability, the recent rash of Van Zandt reissues and retrospectives won't result in a posthumous rediscovery on a large scale. But at least for now, music lovers will have the opportunity to hear a gifted composer sing for himself.
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None of these discs features much in the way of information; the liner notes don't even reveal what year the songs were penned. But the music more than compensates for such weaknesses. Texas Rain attempts to lure listeners via the prominence of its guest stars, who include Doug Sahm ("Two Girls"), James McMurtry ("Snowin' on Raton"), Kathy Mattea ("At My Window") and most of the Texas Tornados ("Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria"). But the biggest draws are the songs -- especially "If I Needed You," which mates Van Zandt's late-period rasp with the ethereal warbling of Emmylou Harris.
The Best of Townes Van Zandt occasionally goes the guest-star route at times, too, and not always to its benefit: A take of "No Place to Fall" with Willie Nelson, for example, can't compare to the original. (For a better rendition, check out Live at the Old Quarter, a 1977 live album that recently returned to stores.) And the decision to place a phlegmatic rendering of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" next to "For the Sake of the Song," a breathtaking early ditty that finds Van Zandt's light tenor in virginal condition, is unpleasantly jarring. But for the most part, the album provides a well-rounded picture of a man who was tougher than he seemed -- check out the brawny run-through of the blues chestnut "Who Do You Love" -- and smarter than just about any of his guitar-wielding contemporaries. Plenty of musicians are said to write poetically, but he really did. Witness "Our Mother the Mountain," which begins, "My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom/The moon's dancin' purple all through her black hair/And a lady-in-waiting, she stands 'neath my window/And the sun will rise soon on the false and the fair."
As for A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt, recorded during a 1969 appearance at Carnegie Hall when the singer was 25, it starts off on a not-especially-gentle note: Van Zandt jokes that he decided to begin with the satirical "Talking KKK Blues" instead of "Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues," which turns up later, because "I figured there were more bigots here than winos." But elsewhere, he concentrates on acoustic balladry as fragile as glass figurines. "Rake," "Like a Summer's Thursday" and "She Came and She Touched Me," in particular, are heartbreakingly gorgeous -- melodic whispers that ring more clearly than ever.
No one ever put these songs on a 45, and that's too bad. They'd turn any jukebox into a thing of beauty.