“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Steve Earle
Every serious Townes fan I know considers this the album. One glaringly obvious reason for this is that his studio albums are kinda shit. These albums are still Townes, of course, so you still get that crème de la crème of songwriting. But listening to a studio album of Townes is like watching the keys to the perfect muscle car, rebuilt to the tits, get handed over to some buck-toothed 14-year-old that wants to trade it in for some Hummer painted the same colour as big-bird’s shit. Whoever produced those records didn’t know who they had behind the mic. They tried to clean the dirt off Townes, paint him up all prim and proper, and sell him off like a lemon-scented asshole bleaching kit. But that’s not what Townes was.
For those that don’t know, Townes is arguably the greatest country songwriter to have ever lived. You wanna talk about smart? Holy fuck. Townes was smart. His first wife Fran Lohr even said, “Townes was a genius. They couldn’t test him because his IQ was so high—way above 140.” But you don’t need a fucking IQ test to figure out Townes was smart. All you really have to do is listen to the lyrics of one of his songs like “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”. In that song Townes tells a story of war and redemption by personifying playing cards in a game of poker. The game is being played between two guys named Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd. This shit is unbelievable. It has to be heard to be believed. Sonic Youth’s drummer Steve Shelley was obsessed with Townes. He even paid for an entire record to be made. Townes missed this because he drunkenly broke his hip. Townes was known to turn down offers to write with Bob Dylan because he didn’t like the whole fame thing. Stories of Townes continue to come out to this day. Each one propels him further away from human understanding and closer to some unknowable songwriting god.
That’s what makes this album so great. This is Townes doing what he does. He’s in a crowded bar with a broken air conditioner and he’s just playing out his tunes. There’s nothing polished or overproduced about it. It’s just a man and his songs. He starts out with one of his more famous songs “Pancho and Lefty,” which has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Steve Earle. It’s fucking country music cannon. After the song, the crowd applauds, beer glasses clink, and Townes says, “Thanks a lot man. I’ve never heard it that quiet in here before. It’s funny.” He goes on to tell corny jokes between songs, that you can’t help but smile at. He’s not some god on this recording. He’s just some dude that has the ability to write a fucking song. You feel the dust in the room, the energy of the place, and with an absolute lightness Townes displays the depths of humanity without making anyone feel sad. In short, the man embodies what country music is all about.
I wanted to bring light to Townes before March 7th, when a new Townes album is set to be released. No, he isn’t with us anymore. If he were, this album would be released on his 75th birthday.