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Townes Van Zandt shows he's a far cry from dead

By Brian Steinberg, June 1999

The late, great Townes Van Zandt still has a little life left in him.

Just when his fans thought the immortal, hard-living troubadour - who had his songs sung by Willie Nelson, Rosie Flores and Emmylou Harris, and his praises sung by no less a personage than Steve Earle - had shuffled off this mortal coil, his wife and a veteran producer are bringing him back for an album, maybe two.

Eric Paul, producer of "A Far Cry From Dead," a new Townes Van Zandt album due in late June, is preaching the gospel of the cult-figure troubadour, known as much for his hard-living and problems with alcoholism as he is for songs like "Pancho and Lefty."

"I believe he was prophetic. I believe he knew he was going to die," Paul says. "I believe he wanted to leave something behind that he never had a chance to do. These songs appeared on record earlier in his career. I don't think he ever got happy with anything he had ever done. I believe he put this stuff down with the ultimate motive of leaving something behind after he died."

The new album consists of original vocal and guitar tracks laid down by Townes, and the musical accompaniment of a full band supervised by Paul, and Jeanene Van Zandt, Townes' wife and the record's executive producer.

"Townes was my whole mission since I first heard his music," says Jeanene, who was married to Van Zandt for 15 years. When she met him, she says, "I was like, God! I felt cheated that I hadn't gotten to hear any of this. Why haven't I heard any of this on the radio?"

After Townes had passed away, Jeanene and family friend Paul had a fateful Thanksgiving dinner.

Townes "kept bringing these tapes to Jeanene," Paul recounts. "He said, 'Hang on to these. Just put them away. They're going to be worth something someday.'"

When Jeanene realized what she had in her possession, she brought Paul, who also worked with Johnny Cash, Nelson and Harris, over for the holiday meal - and to listen to some of the last work by one of folk music's more underappreciated figures. "There, when we were listening to them, we were in shock," Paul says. "The vocals were so pure."

The selections from "A Far Cry From Dead," were made between 1989 and 1991, Jeanene says, when Townes would wander over to a neighbor's house with music on his mind. Fortunately, the neighbor had an in-house studio. The friend "didn't know his songs very well," she says. "I think Townes was just kind of showing off."

Zandt, who died in 1997 at 52, hailed from a family of Texas blue-bloods, and wrote more than 150 stark narratives like "Rex's Blues" and "If I Needed You." In the process, he inspired artists ranging from Guy Clark to The Cowboy Junkies to Merle Haggard to Mudhoney.

Despite the cult success, Townes fought off inner demons for most of his life. He was diagnosed early in his life as manic-depressive, and he died partially as the result of a damaged heart and years of alcohol abuse.

Steve Earle wrote the song "Ft. Worth Blues" for him and is regularly quoted as saying that for his money, Van Zandt is the world's best songwriter - and that he'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table to say it.

Where some of Van Zandt's last studio albums have been marred by a creaky voice even more world-weary than the songs the artist is singing deserve, "A Far Cry From Dead" boasts some surprisingly sterling vocals.

And the new disc includes two tunes previously unheard by fans: "Sanitarium Blues," a track that originally consisted of Van Zandt speaking into a mike and humming a melody, and "Squash." The latter, Jeanene says, was "made up on the spot. We had the recorder going. It was the only time it was ever played or sung."

Of course, there's plenty of familiar territory here, with chestnuts like "To Live's To Fly," "For The Sake Of The Song" and "Ain't Leavin' Your Love."

The process that led from a handful of unaccompanied, unvarnished Van Zandt hand-me-down tracks to a full-blown album with band was not an easy one. Paul described a six or seven week studio siege, during which he and the band "went with the feel."

"I knew the danger of doing what I was doing," Paul says. "The biggest danger was making it sound like he wasn't there."

Fortunately, Jeanene, played a large part in the record's genesis. "I used her as the artist," Paul says. "That role play between the producer and the artist took place between Jeanene and myself."

Equally as important, Van Zandt put up all the money for the venture. "She paid for everything and ended up making a deal with Arista after the fact," says Paul. "She wanted to do it that way because she didn't want a lot of people putting their two cents in."

And there may be more Townes on the horizon. Paul says he has enough of the hardscrabble Van Zandt tapes for another go-round. What's more, a tribute effort may be in the works. Jeanene calls the project "a family thing."

Many of Townes' records, made for the Tomato label, are controlled by others, she says. Some proceeds from "A Far Cry From Dead" will go into trusts for the songwriter's children.

What Van Zandt might have accomplished had he lived is far from certain. The man was plagued with emotional problems and the results of living life perhaps too close to the bone. Nonetheless, he knew the value of a good song and realized, just maybe, that the only way to keep on in people's hearts and minds was to pass on a little bit more of his singular musicianship.

As he sings on "To Live's To Fly": "It's goodbye to all my friends/ It's time to go again/Think on all the poetry/And the pickin' down the line/I'll miss that system here/The bottom's low and the treble's clear/But it don't pay to think too much/On things you leave behind/I may be gone/But it won't be long/I'll be a-bringin' back the melody/And the rhythm that I find."