Covering Townes Van Zandt Can Be a Tricky Proposition

Not all that long ago, Rocks Off saw some comment on a Facebook thread where a guy claiming to be a poet said he didn't think Townes van Zandt was the great poet/lyricist so many seem to think. His complaint: he felt like in every Townes song there was some flaw, some line that shouldn't have been added or should have been tweaked.

Steve Earle, no piker as a lyricist himself, cut an entire album of van Zandt songs two years back. The often hyperbolic Mr. Earle once declared he would jump up on Bob Dylan's coffee table and proclaim that Townes was a better songwriter than Mr. Zimmerman.

Personally, Rocks Off isn't willing to go that far. Dylan may mail a live show in occasionally at this point, but it's hard to argue with the man's career, influence, and lyrics. And, no disrespect meant to Earle, but Dylan and Townes are two different Jimmy Webbs. Where Dylan's arch has been huge, lingering, and spread across many universes, van Zandt's was quick, hard, and fairly brutal. That reality is reflected in Van Zandt's work, however flawed the Facebook poster may find it.

Despite the Facebook poet's sniveling critique, one measure of the esteem Van Zandt's work is held in -- at least by singers and songwriters -- is the substantial number of covers of his songs. Along with Earle, Richard Dobson has recorded an entire album of Townes songs, Amigos, in 1994, and Jonell Mosser did the same in 1996 with Around Townes.

Two years later, folkie Rhonda Harris released an entire album of van Zandt songs called Tell the World We Tried, which pretty much went nowhere. In 2010, David Broza dropped Night Dawn, an entire of album of poems van Zandt wrote but never recorded.

Poet: A Tribute To Townes van Zandt was released in 2001 and included the usual suspects: Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, etc.That same year, Texas Rain, an album of posthumous studio-magic duets with a star-studded list of Texas singer-writers, was also released.

In 2007, Glitterhouse Records released There's A Hole in Heaven Where Some Sin Slips Through, an imaginative mix of left-of-center artists like Jon Langford and Gary Heffern and Marah tackling Van Zandt's oeuvre. In 2009, a relatively unknown gaggle of singers released Introducing Townes Van Zandt Via the Great Unknown, which featured an interesting stylistic mix reimagining some Townes tunes.

Yet, In spite of the huge success Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had with their cover of Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983, picking a tune from the Townes catalog can prove a tricky proposition.

Emmylou Harris was the first major talent to record a Van Zandt cover, cutting "Pancho and Lefty" six years prior to Nelson and Haggard. But outside of a cult of aficionados, the track fell mostly on deaf ears -- if it was heard at all. If you weren't in that world, you probably never even heard it, although it was a regular in her live sets. (Yes, that's Rodney Crowell and the mighty Albert Lee backing up Harris.)

Harris, Nelson, and Haggard certainly fared better with Van Zandt than Evan Dando and the Lemonheads did. Dando's version is clean and tone-perfect, but his reading is more a straight homage that generates little excitement and adds nothing to "Waiting Around to Die," a gritty drifter's tale that van Zandt claimed was the first song he ever wrote in the movie, Heartworn Highway.

We wonder what Dando was thinking when he stepped behind the microphone to record. It's not that it's "bad," it just adds nothing and fails to capture any of the emotional danger Van Zandt conveyed in the original. Dando sings it OK, but it just isn't believable.

Mumford and Sons add a bit more feeling to their cover of the gorgeous "If I Needed You," but something about this arrangement whispers to Rocks Off that these guys probably came to Van Zandt via Harris or Don Williams. They certainly put the Mumford stamp on it, and it depends on the listener's level of Mumford fandom whether or not this works. To Rocks Off, it's another Mumford yawner.

The following are a few of Rocks Off's favorite Townes covers, purposely omitting Nelson and Haggard, Earle, Lyle Lovett and other obvious choices.

Story continues on the next page.

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Roland S. Howard.  Nothin'  I think he nailed it in his own way.

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