Back in February 1992, in a telephone interview for a daily-paper concert preview, I asked Townes Van Zandt if he tended to benefit from the covers of his songs that occasionally popped up amid the big leagues of country music. I meant it in a financial sense, related to publishing royalties for his songwriting — but Townes, not surprisingly, answered the question from an entirely different perspective. “Oh, of course it benefits,” he said. “There’s somebody in Holland right now in some coffee shop or some basement apartment playing ‘Pancho & Lefty’ with a Dutch accent. And I mean, boy, that benefits me deluxe.”
The only surprise about the surfacing of Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt, due out September 11, is that it took this long for a major Van Zandt tribute album to come together. When the legendary Texan died on New Year’s Day 1997 at age 52, memorial concerts popped up quickly, from Austin’s Cactus Cafe to Los Angeles’ Ash Grove, from New York’s Bottom Line to Seattle’s Tractor Tavern. Within a year or so, PBS’ “Austin City Limits” put together a moving, star-studded Townes tribute. In 1998, Lyle Lovett included four Van Zandt songs on his album Step Inside This House.
Poet, on the other hand, has taken almost five years to materialize, but it’s well worth the wait. And that’s no surprise, because Van Zandt’s songs almost invariably bring out the best qualities in the artists who perform them. It’s not just because the material is so good that it’s hard to go wrong, but also because the performers carry such a reverence for the songwriter that they tend to rise above obstacles which might occasionally hold them back in their own work. Simply put, when you’re playing Townes’ songs, you know damn well you have to be true.
As such, it’s no surprise to see such sterling performances turned in by the likes of Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson — all of whom also appeared on the “Austin City Limits” episode. Clark’s leadoff track, “To Live’s To Fly”, is clearly so indelibly ingrained in his lifeblood that there seems to be no line between where Townes ends and Guy begins. Griffith, who recorded a definitive cover of “Tecumseh Valley” in 1993 on her Other Voices, Other Rooms album, nearly does the same here with “Tower Song” (her version bowing only to the achingly passionate live rendition delivered by Alejandro Escovedo in recent years).
Earle, responsible for the most famous quote ever uttered about Van Zandt (his vow to stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and proclaim Townes the best songwriter in the world), likely could have tackled any number of Van Zandt classics, but wisely chose the more obscure “Two Girls” for one of the disc’s more rockin’, bluesy moments, ably aided by his backing band, the Dukes. Harris, who helped take Townes to the mainstream two decades ago through her #2 smash duet with Don Williams on “If I Needed You”, also ventured off the beaten path, keenly recognizing “Snake Song” as a perfect fit for the backwoods atmospherics of her recent explorations with Spyboy.
Nelson — a prime mover in the disc’s very existence, as Pedernales is partly his label — is more responsible than anyone for bringing Townes to the attention of the masses, his #1 duet with Merle Haggard on “Pancho & Lefty” in 1983 largely responsible for the song becoming a modern classic. Willie obviously kept listening all the while; “Marie” didn’t surface until Townes’ 1995 album No Deeper Blue, but it was one of Van Zandt’s strongest, darkest songs, deserving of Nelson’s forthright reading on Poet.
A handful of tracks are noteworthy simply on the basis of how remarkably well they fit the artists entrusted with them. You’d have been hard-pressed, for instance, to believe “Blue Wind Blew” wasn’t a Flatlanders original from their early-’70s Lubbock heyday, so naturally does it flow into the rhythm and twang of old pals Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. “White Freightliner Blues” is the kind of roadhouse tune tailor-made for the kerosene breath of Billy Joe Shaver and the razor guitar of his son Eddy (this reportedly having been the last session Eddy laid down before his death last New Year’s Eve). “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold” is the kind of story-song that plays right into the hand of Robert Earl Keen. And, hearing John Prine sing “Loretta”, it’s a wonder a quarter-century passed before a match so obvious got documented.
Disappointments on Poet are hard to come by, and even then are largely a relative matter. The Cowboy Junkies’ moody interpretation of “The Highway Kind” isn’t quite in a league with Lovett’s classic take on the tune. Lucinda Williams’ “Nothin’” doesn’t quite tap into the song’s black-hole core like the Walkabouts’ side-project duo Chris & Carla have done in live shows. “Waitin’ Round To Die” might have been better suited to a veteran blues artist than Americana upstart Pat Haney. The only real letdown is, oddly, “Pancho & Lefty”, which rolls past with little spark or fever in the hands of Delbert McClinton.
A couple moments, however, stand out as genuine revelations. Certainly those resigned to the western swing routine of Asleep At The Wheel leader Ray Benson won’t be prepared for his drop-dead gorgeous vocal on “If I Needed You”. Perhaps his most ardent followers knew Benson was capable of such beauty, but it apparently took the inspirational force of Townes for that quality to show itself.
And the closing track, “My Proud Mountains”, proves the perfect farewell, delivered in a slightly shaky but emotionally sincere vocal by Townes’ son, John T. Van Zandt. This is the younger Van Zandt’s first appearance on record; while he clearly shares the other artists’ love for his father’s music, as well as his father’s passion for the muse, he hasn’t chosen to pursue this as a career. Thus, when he advises, “So lend an ear to my singin’/'Cause I’ll be back no more,” it rings true not only to the memory of his father, but also to the spirit of that kid in some Dutch coffee shop singing the songs of Townes Van Zandt.
And that benefits Townes deluxe.