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Published: 2003/06/26
by Jonathan Sumber

In The Beginning – Townes Van Zandt

Compadre Records 6-16892-52402-1

One should always be suspicious of posthumous albums, since far too many are
awkward collages of cutting-room floor material. Even worse than the
redundant outtakes are lackluster live albums, which have few inherent
qualities outside of being a rarity. How many artists are rolling in their
graves because the music they once deemed unfit for human consumption was
later released for a buck? (see: Jeff Buckley, Hendrix)

Townes Van Zandt's In the Beginning is a refreshing exception. The
liner notes kick off with a disarming quote from his widow, Jeanene Van
Zandt: "Townes kept telling me, 'find these songs. I know I recorded them,
they're somewhere.'" If Jeanene is to be trusted, we can rest assured that
the artist intended for this music to be heard. Then in 2002, five years
after Townes' untimely death from a heart attack, his long-time friend and
early producer Jack Clement stumbled onto the missing tapes. Instead of
intentionally shelved material, here we have real lost-and-found gems: ten
studio demos from 1966, which pre-date Van Zandt's proper debut album by two
full years. These songs are his first Nashville recordings. He was only
twenty-two years old.

But don't assume that the tender age equates to wet-behind-the-ears. No,
Van Zandt was a weary old soul from the start. He emerged from the folk
clubs of Houston, Texas as a promising talent with a unique flair for
accenting authentic cowboy blues with heartbreaking sensitivity. Only the
first and third tracks of In the Beginning feature band backing. The
rest are simply a woeful young man and his countrified guitar. Highlights
include the honky-tonk lament "Waitin' for the Day," and the chunky,
rollicking foot-stomper "Black Jack Mama," reminiscent of the traditional
tune "Gallows Pole" (made famous by Led Zeppelin).

Perhaps the best aspect of In the Beginning is that the songs feel
surprisingly at place here in 2003. Even with Van Zandt's penchant for
hippie-love sentimentality, this record is as timeless as all great music
proves to be. Interestingly, the only tracks which give away their age are
the full band cuts. The rest of In the Beginning could conceivably
pass as newly-recorded material from a country-folk purist, and not just
newly-found. That's no small feat after 37 years in the time capsule.

Newcomers to Townes Van Zandt can expect the poignancy of Bob Dylan, along
with the ache and grit of John Prine, but with a plaintive howl all his own.
The meat of the record are gentle, flatpicking ballads, oozing with tender
melancholy. This injection of quality material is a boon to Townes Van
Zandt's lonely fans, but anyone out there who enjoys top-shelf, late 60's
folk (in the vein of Dylan and maybe Cash) should put In the
Beginning on his want list. Although, the uninitiated might be advised
to start with a certified classic like Van Zandt's flagship Live at the
Old Quarter. You should have owned that one yesterday.

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