Listen to this track by outlaw country herald and transcendentally gifted, underexposed Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It’s “Tower Song”, first featured on his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues, with this particular version being re-positioned as an aged gem on the 1999 album Far Cry From Dead.
On this song, it’s the starkness on display that outlines the sheer magnitude of Van Zandt’s command of melody, lyrics, and the raw human experience that burns right through it all. It’s no wonder that his friend and musical disciple Steve Earle would famously proclaim Townes Van Zandt as the “best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Perhaps Bob, after clearing up Earle’s bootprints, would agree, particularly in the light of this song, which is certainly one of my favourites.
This latter-day version was recorded under inauspicious circumstances, later to be added to a project that would prove to be something of a tribute to a career that had been troubled, and financially unfruitful for the artist at the center of it. This lack of career traction is contrasted with his artistic influence that made lasting waves in the careers of others, including Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, both having recorded Van Zandt’s material.
Far Cry From Dead is effectively a compilation album of re-recorded work. It showcases a choice selection of songs over a twenty-five year career, after the artist had passed. And there is something in this new version of the song that strikes a stronger chord, showing new dimension to an already first-tier talent that went largely uncelebrated while the man himself was still with us.
Van Zandt’s work is generally connected to established country music traditions. But, he was a singular figure, not bound by the rigidity of mainstream country music. His approach did not involve the artifice of slick pop-oriented songwriting with hooks at the forefront. Rather, Van Zandt excels in his ability to hook into and to express the beating emotional heart of his chosen subject matter, and to bring out the abject brokeness of spirit that lays at the heart of the narrative. This is certainly evident here on this tune.
As with other tunes on Far Cry From Dead, this version of “Tower Song” was recorded with Van Zandt singing and playing acoustic guitar. The basic vocal and acoustic guitar tracks were recorded in a number of locations somewhere between 1989 and 1996. Later, overdubs by other musicians were added that would appear on the finished album in 1999. The project was overseen by his ex-wife Jeanene with whom he’d spent his final days at the end of 1996 before he passed away on New Year’s Day 1997.
This song features the voice of a departing lover, flawed himself, and unable to work around the flaws of the one he’s leaving. It is completely devastating, and beautifully wrought all at once. As his road-worn voice revisits this song some twenty-five years after he first recorded it, it is his “you built your tower strong and tall/can’t you see it’s got to fall someday” that can be pretty aptly applied to Van Zandt himself. Maybe this is what he meant all along.
And while this nakedness of emotional content may be an explanation as to his lack of commercial success (among other more personally-related issues that had nothing to do with the quality of his material …), it certainly may also explain why he is so revered across the musical spectrum by other songwriters, from the aforementioned Steve Earle, to proto Alt-Country outfit Cowboy Junkies, to fellow Texan Norah Jones.
Even if Van Zandt eventually fell himself, he’d built a tower strong and tall in his own way, eventually to serve as a musical beacon to others.
To learn more about this fascinating and troubled musician, check out TownesVanZandt.com.
Also, to follow up with Steve Earle’s take on Van Zandt’s influence and legacy, have a read of this article about Townes Van Zandt from the New York Times.