It’s perfectly understandable if the notion of listening to country music leaves you feeling nauseous. It’s a genre bloated with über-patriotic twaddle, honky-tonk urban-cowboy nonsense, and endless reactionary absurdities. That said, like any musical genre (metal included), if you’re prepared to sort the wheat from the chaff there are plenty of worthwhile artists to discover, particularly from the outlaw country realm. Although it might seem a stretch to suggest that metal and country are close kin, you’ll find that the ragged, renegade end of the country spectrum shares a common vernacular with metal—both frequently speak with brutal candor about the rack and ruin of lives led on the margins.
Among the outlaw country fraternity, Townes Van Zandt is held in high esteem. Though greatly admired by his peers and fans, he remained a cult figure up to his death in 1997. Blighted by drug addiction, alcoholism and mental health issues, he was too mercurial to have had much of a chance at mainstream country stardom. Sadly, much of his studio work is littered with generic countrified orchestrations, smothering his renegade vigor. It was on stage with his guitar in hand that Van Zandt earned his reputation as a legendary figure. His solo live albums are outstanding, passionate works. Drawing from his own personal turmoil, he imbued them with the hard-worn authenticity of his own often-uncertain existence.
This June, three metal desperados are set to release a nine-song tribute to the renowned rebel troubadour. The three-way split album, Songs of Townes Van Zandt, features contributions from Scott Kelly****(Neurosis, Shrinebuilder etc), Steve Von Till****(Neurosis, Harvestman etc) and Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich (Saint Vitus, The Obsessed etc). You couldn’t find three more qualified artists to cover Van Zandt’s work. All have acknowledged the formative role Van Zandt had in crafting their own songwriting styles, and have previously covered his work individually and collaboratively. They’re all well acquainted with the darkened lyrical themes Van Zandt explored; the ravages of addiction and the struggles of an acclaimed cult artist are familiar to them all. Like Van Zandt’s, their missives have an intimate feel—no matter how thunderously they are conveyed. And each artist has sought to discern some deeper sense of meaning from the capriciousness of life.
Putting their metal pursuits to one side for Songs of Townes Van Zandt, Kelly, Von Till and Wino are in acoustic and electro-acoustic mode, honoring the influence of Van Zandt in the most direct and evocative fashion. Von Till contributes the stark and achingly beautiful opening track, “If I Needed You”, the menacing folk crawl of “Black Crow Blues” and the buzzing, psych-flecked (à la Harvestman) “The Snake Song”. Kelly performs the fragile and haunting “St. John the Gambler”, a track I was fortunate to see him play on his recent acoustic tour, along with the heartbreaking, working-class balladry of “Tecumseh Valley” and the dirty-thrum of “Lungs”. Wino covers the forlorn folk of “Rake”, the desolately poetic “Nothing” and the tender, stripped-back “A Song For”. All the songs have been reduced to similarly bare bones arrangements. All are wholly mesmerizing.
Von Till and Kelly utilize their gruff baritone growls superbly. Their depth of tone perfectly aligns with Van Zandt’s tales of calamity and the instability of sentience and love. Wino deals from a more honeyed deck, though with no less affecting impact. Like the skeletally composed solo material of all three artists, the raw-edged timbre of minimal instrumentation on Songs of Townes Van Zandt leaves the focus firmly on their voices and the lyrics. This is, of course, entirely apt for an artist like Van Zandt, whose tales were strikingly forthright, and best appreciated in their most unembellished form.
Again, it’s fitting that three artists with turbulent histories are covering Van Zandt’s work in such a stark manner. They bring an awareness of the soul-shattering heaviness of often self-inflicted tragedies, infusing Van Zandt’s material with their own sense of lives lived among the wreckage and reinforcing its emotive weight.
Songs of Townes Van Zandt is a stunning album. Distilling Van Zandt’s work down to a poignant acoustic framework (as he used to do so well in a live setting) brings the immediacy and lyrical genius of his work to the fore. However, not only does the album pay due respect to the influence Van Zandt has had on Kelly, Von Till and Wino, it also serves as a reminder of the sublime artistry that sits at the heart of their own work. If you can’t find something to latch onto among these nine hauntingly picturesque tracks, or recognize Kelly, Von Till and Wino’s own legacies at play, then it’s best you check your pulse to see if you’re even living.
*PS: I stopped rating albums a long while back, but in honor of this one, I’m reinstalling the regime. *