Townes Van Zandt Album Reviews

From a high profile Texan oil family, Townes Van Zandt was groomed as Texas governor, but inspired by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, he dropped out of college in the 1960s to pursue a musical career. Of MENSA level intelligence, and diagnosed as a manic-depressive in his early twenties, Van Zandt rejected wealth and comfort, seeming to consciously fill his life with pain and instability to fuel his art; when accused that he only wrote sad songs, he replied that “well, many of the songs, they aren’t sad, they’re hopeless.” While his Texan accent gives his music a country twang, Van Zandt is as much a folk and blues singer, and many of his recordings are stripped down to guitar and voice.

Van Zandt’s discography can be frustrating; he wasn’t fussed about the recording process, and some of his albums, particularly his debut, are smothered in inappropriately lush arrangements. Van Zandt’s often at his best when he’s left unadorned, and Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas is often cited as his best work. Conversely, the doom-laden and string-laden Our Mother The Mountain is my favourite of his studio work. It’s common for the same song to appear on multiple studio albums, and his albums are often filled out with throwaway blues tunes. But as Steve Earle notes, at his best Van Zandt is a master songwriter; “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

As a shortcut to his oeuvre, the box set Texas Troubadour collects his first seven studio albums, through to 1978’s Flyin’ Shoes, and is a good shortcut to his work.  Van Zandt released two further albums before his premature death on New Year’s Day 1997; 1987’s At My Window and 1994’s No Deeper Blue. I’m not familiar with either, but please write in and let me know if I’m missing out.

Ten Favourite Townes Van Zandt Songs

Tower Song
No Place To Fall
Flyin’ Shoes
St. John The Gambler
High, Low and In Between
Pancho and Lefty
The Silver Ships of Andilar
To Live Is To Fly
Like A Summer Thursday