Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, Wino - The Songs of Townes Van Zandt

Perhaps most celebrated for the song “Poncho and Lefty” which was famously recorded by Willie Nelson in 1983, Townes Van Zandt never had anything approaching significant fame in his lifetime. His tunes have, however, been covered over the years by a wide range of artists including Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Hoyt Axton, The Tindersticks, Norah Jones, Robert Plant, Mudhoney and the Cowboy Junkies. Born into a well-known local family in Fort Worth, Texas in 1944, John Townes van Zandt’s childhood was spent travelling as his father worked in the oil industry.
After graduating from High School he attended military college for two years, and it was around this time he was diagnosed with manic depression. After abandoning a law course at the University of Texas he resolved to become a folk singer. Sadly, Van Zandt’s life came to an end in 1997 at the age of 52, 44 years to the day after the death of fellow country music legend Hank Williams.
After performing Van Zandt pieces in an assortment of collaborations over the years, Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till (Neurosis and Tribes of Neurot) and Scott “Wino” Weinrich (The Obsessed and Saint Vitus) have come up with an inspiring tribute to the great singer/songwriter, capturing the poignant fragility of the music whilst at the same time leaving their own impression on the tunes. Armed only with acoustic guitars for the main part, the covers appear faithful to the original, losing none of their distinctive courage. The lyrics of Van Zandt appear to paint a vivid private picture, and follow a striking narrative that the attentive listener will be able to draw from and relate to their own personal life. Opening with “If I Needed You” by Steve Von Till, the lyrics ache with Van Zandts characteristic vulnerability. “St. John, the Gambler” by Scott Kelly may lack the growl of Von Till’s voice, which appears to be the product of a thousand Marlborough cigarettes, but loses none of that candidness. Wino, who performs “Rake”, “Nothing” and “A Song For” has a soulful, melodic voice that is the perfect vehicle for these narratives. The longest track on the album “Tecumseh Valley”, performed by Scott Kelly, drives forwards unremittingly, as the tale unfolds, allowing the sparse instrumentation to highlight the frailty of the lines. These covers may lack some of the spring of the original versions, but none of the implication. These are gloomy stories of drunks, losers and the browbeaten.
Hopefully this collection will introduce the music of Townes Van Zandt to a new generation of listeners, some who may not have considered the country music genre in the past, who will then have access to a catalogue of honest, stirring and thought provoking songs. Music categorised as “doom” may not simply be seen as loud guitars chords played at a snail’s pace tempo, it can also be used to describe music such as we have here. Tributes such as this are an important way of keeping the legacy of important and influential musical figures alive, and this particular attempt achieves that without question. (9/10)

John Toolan