Even without a single hit under his own name, the late Townes Van Zandt remains firmly ensconced in the songwriters' hall of fame. Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson had major successes with his songs (“If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty,” respectively), and Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Steve Earle have all cited him as a major influence. A true American original, Van Zandt drew upon Hank Williams Sr., Bob Dylan, Lightnin' Hopkins, and the essence of Southwestern mythology, synthesizing these influences into richly poetic short stories, singing in a world-weary drawl as parched as the dusty West Texas wind.
Originally issued on Poppy Records in 1968, Townes' debut, For the Sake of the Song, contains several numbers that he'd ultimately rerecord, perhaps because he felt the album was overproduced. Of all his releases, this one sounds the most overtly “of the '60s,” with the male and female choirs, harpsichord, organ, and recorder giving the tunes a densely layered, almost Baroque ambience. While the production sounds dated at times (albeit in a charming way), the evocative brilliance of Van Zandt's writing and plain-spoken delivery shines through: The vivid accounts of destroyed lives in “Tecumseh Valley” and “Waitin' Around to Die” feature stark details worthy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
Van Zandt's sophomore release, Our Mother the Mountain, is more typical of his trademark spare folk-picking and Nashville-country overtones. There's orchestration present, but it's used far more judiciously, accenting the songs' melancholia. If there's a more bereaved, desolate narrative than the Irish-tinged title tune, I don't think I could bear to hear it — by comparison Nick Cave sounds like Jonathan Richman at his giddiest. Thanks to Tomato Records' comprehensive reissue program, Townes Van Zandt's catalog is finally receiving the deluxe revival it deserves, in all its harrowing glory.