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Published: 2002/05/22
by Chip Schramm

The Best of Townes Van Zandt – Townes Van Zandt

I am somewhat surprised to say that I wasn't at all familiar with Townes
Van Zandt's songs or music before listening to this recent release of his
greatest works. I had heard the name, but never sought
his albums on my own, which seems to make sense, because his style of
singing and songwriting seems to require that the listener come to them,
instead of reaching out and actively grabbing him or her. Producer Kevin
Eggers selected the 17 tunes from a body of work that included 11 different
albums. Musically simple and unpretentious, Van Zandt's songs draw from
various folk and Americana influences. He plays acoustic guitar, picking
and strumming just enough to add melody to his spoken words.

His songs are painted with the colors of nature and beauty of the physical
environment. But as those familiar with his life's work are probably well
aware, most of his writing is more bluesy and restless than it is
spiritually uplifting. The first song on the album, "Tecumseh Valley",
tells the story of a coal miner's daughter who turned to a life of whoring
when times got bad. "Our Mother The Mountain" spins a tale of another
seemingly cursed woman, which whom the singer has a romantic relation. A
pan flute echoes in the background, giving an old-world touch to match the
unusual word order and chorus of the song.

"Snake Mountain Blues" also continues the theme of doomed love and
impending death. Van Zandt makes reference to women and unhappy romantic
situations in many of the songs on the album. Death also plays a prominent
role, symbolically if nothing else. In "Waiting Around To Die", a
song he duets with Calvin Russell, the duo lives life on the run and cheats
death as long as they can, before being finally accepting one of life's two
inevitable fates. The electric guitar touches on this track adds a subtle
and warm flavor that sticks out on the album.

There are a couple of cover songs on this greatest hits collection, but they
seem at home and were well chosen to match the others. Bo Diddley's "Who
Do You Love" matches Van Zandt's flat, gruff vocals with some cooing
female backing vocals, which make it sound totally different than any other
version I've ever heard. "Dead Flowers" by the Rolling Stones seems
to be a perfect match for his vocal range as well. "The Ballad of Ira
Hayes" is a truly great song, and this one makes me think of the version
I once heard on a Bob Dylan studio session, when he was backed by
the Grateful Dead. They aren't really similar, but the positive connection
made it enjoyable to me nonetheless.

This album is well worth seeking out, for those that appreciate
singer-songwriters in both folks and blues traditions. The fact that the
last track is a duet with Willie Nelson serves as a testament to the
caliber of musicians who had high regard for Van Zandt in his lifetime. I
can already tell that it's the kind of album that will grow on the listener
with each additional playing.

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