FIRSTS: A First Look at Townes Van Zandt

By Joshua Witchger 06-13-2012

Editor's Note: This is the first post in a series called FIRSTS, where some of us take a look at classic works of art, music, film and literature for the first time. We hope that a fresh perspective on these influential pop-cultural artifacts will inspire discussion and interest that outlasts the shelf-life of daily reviews.

Townes Van Zandt
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972)

Townes Van Zandt isn’t a songwriter I’ve heard many people praise (or even acknowledge, really.) But the few people I know who love him are folks with musical tastes I admire and respect.

One is my college roommate’s brother, who introduced both of us to the great Tom Waits during my junior year.

Another is a friend who’s always following a new dream, be it dropping out of school to travel, or finding work on farms and in coffee shops.    

Both are people I’d describe as earthy and natural — devotees to folk tunes with lyrics that transcend contexts, offering timeless truths that smirk at popular culture’s music of cheap love and consumer-driven individuality.

So, this week I began listening to an album that my musical mentors hold dear  — and one that I’ve never heard laid ears on before — Townes Van Zandt’s 1972 LP The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

And after listening to it for a few days it's drawn me in. 

The album begins with a marching tune, one of my favorites from the record, “Sad Cinderella,” where poetry of ruin and loss prompts the listener to think, "What will I become if loss should come? Where will I find myself? Or as Van Zandt sings, “When all your bright scarlet turns slowly to blue / will you stop and decide that it’s over?”

The lyrics makes me think of sung poetry that I love, such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall," or Iron & Wine’s “Trapeze Swinger” and “Walking Far From Home.” Each is a song where a common theme is ruminated upon and reworked in different ways to broaden an idea.

Throughout the album, Van Zandt’s wobbly voice gives an authentic gravitas to the lyrics. Listeners can sense his earnestness. His guitar — sometimes out of tune or with oddly buzzing strings — often reminds me of early acoustic blues, where honesty and emotion, rather than pristine production, fuel the art.

I’ve read that Van Zandt was more of a cult artist, attracting a small but devoted fan base; and though he struggled to sell records and gain large-scale success, his career continued despite battles with drug and other addictions.

And I can get behind that. I like art that comes from such places — it’s real. And he sings a lot about goodness.

In all, I like the album, even though the songs can sometimes feel a bit stale in the way certain Southern twangy voices can drain your ears. In those moments, I have to press the pause button. But when I listen intently, and think of Van Zandt’s life’s work, I’m drawn into his artistry.

While I sometimes need to take a break from Van Zandt's hard-wrought sonic musings, they never fail to evoke something emotional in me — happy, sad, or in between — and it makes me want to keep listening.

Joshua Witchger is an online assistant at Sojourners.

FIRSTS image by sharpner/shutterstock with illustration by Cathleen Falsani.  Photo of Townes Van Zandt via Wiki Commons.

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