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February 1, 2005

Townes Van Zanst sets a troubled life to music

If you're not familiar with Townes Van Zandt, let me catch you up. Often considered the best singer-songwriter to come out of Texas, Van Zandt's material has been covered by the veritable royalty of country and folk music—from Emmylou Harris to Merle Haggard to Bob Dylan. Before Van Zandt's death in 1997, that other Texas songwriter, Steve Earle, proclaimed, "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter alive…and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

However, the problem with Townes Van Zandt—and what likely kept him from becoming an absolute superstar—is that he never made a really great studio album. Sure, other people cut extremely successful versions of his songs, but his own albums always crept into overproduction. However, Van Zandt's true legacy lies in the long out-of-print double album Live At The Old Quarter, which was recently reissued. Culled from a five night stand at a dusky Texas bar in the summer of '73, Live At The Old Quarter could not be farther from overproduction. It is only a man, already road-weary at age 29, accompanying himself with guitar as he sings his heartbroken prose.

The introduction sets the tone of the album perfectly. The emcee first informs the audience where necessary things like payphones, cigarette machines, and pool tables are located. Then Van Zandt is introduced, immediately apologizing for the lack of air conditioning (this is Texas, mind you). He launches into what is perhaps his most famous song, "Pancho and Lefty." A huge hit duet by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, the song is perfectly indicative of Van Zandt, with dry lines like "Livin' on the road my friend/ Was gonna keep you free and clean/ Now you wear your skin like iron/ And your breath's as hard as kerosene," that inevitably invoke images of a washed-up troubadour walking lonely stretches of desert asphalt.

Van Zandt's quavery voice indicates untold sorrow, as he plows through what seems like classic after classic, from the whimsy of "Don't Take It Too Bad" to the despondent homesickness of "Kathleen." One particular highlight is "White Freightliner Blues," often covered by Gillian Welch. Van Zandt doesn't quite have the range to hit the high notes, but that only adds to the emotion as he sings, "Well, it's bad news from Houston/ Half my friends are dying/ Oh, white freightliner, won't you steal away my mind."

Perhaps the most telling part of the album is Van Zandt's introduction to "Waiting 'Round To Die," in which he comments that "this is the first serious song I ever wrote." When one considers that the final lines of the song read "Now I'm out of prison, I got me a friend at last/ He don't steal or cheat or drink or lie/ His name's codeine, he's the nicest thing I've seen/ Together we're gonna wait around and die," it becomes obvious that the author was troubled, as anyone who puts such lines in a first effort must be.

But Live At The Old Quarter is not entirely a downer. Van Zandt waxes irreverent with a pair of talkin' blues songs—"Talkin' Thunderbird Blues" and "Fraternity Blues"—which provide some necessary emotional rest. Van Zandt also runs through a number of covers, including folk classic "Nine Pound Hammer" and Bo Diddley's famous "Who Do You Love." This is the true strength of the album: Van Zandt can take you to the verge of suicide and back again, and still leave you craving more.

Live At The Old Quarter is an impressive achievement, if only because Townes Van Zandt seems to expend no effort. He doesn't have to labor to make the songs come alive, because he is the songs. When he sings a loving paean to a desolate prostitute in "Tecumseh Valley," there is no pretense, because Van Zandt probably lived the story in the song. Which makes it all the more sad that, if people hear Townes Van Zandt at all, it will almost certainly be through someone else's voice.