Both of Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt's wonderful early 70s albums, "High, Low and In Between" and "The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt" that make up this CD reissue were recorded for Kevin Eggers, whose Poppy and Tomato labels, both subsumed at the time under United Artists, were ventures that attempted to produce quality first, hits second. Unfortunately, the label's regularly dire financial straits hampered Townes Van Zandt's rare forays into the music business. Rather, they fed his desire for solitude and distance. Having migrated to Tennessee where he lived in a cabin, re-emerging only rarely to perform and record, the Townes Van Zandt mystique lived on, with the veil over his history pierced only lightly by the clues in his songs.
Its musical variety made "High, Low And In Between" a more interesting listen than Van Zandt's previous four albums, but what made it his best album since his debut was the quality of the songs, especially "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly."
On his sixth album in five years, "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt" seemed to be less prolific, but his song writing craft only improved. He recorded three cover tunes, including one by his heralded main influence Hank Williams. Among the originals were "Pancho and Lefty", a downplayed eulogy for a pair of undistinguished drifters that outlines their story squarely, without romance or sentiment, rather catching the despair and pointlessness of their lives without turning mawkish. "If I Needed You" is about a lover's questioning and is one of his most telling romantic statements.
There seems to be a consensus about Townes being a derelict, a rambler and a rowdy, and more or less the greatest living songwriter in America. But in Austin, Texas - the gathering ground for a tribe of singer-songwriters who have driven the engine of a folk-country movement that has helped advance the careers of such diverse and quirky artists as Lyle Lovett, Nance Griffith and Butch Hancock - Townes Van Zandt's song writing is spoken of with the hushed reverence reserved for icons. Steve Earle has famously said he would "stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots" to tell him that Townes van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world. Van Zandt has been styled 'the Van Gogh of lyrics' by Billboard, the music business trade magazine, and been described by the New York Times as a writer whose songs feel 'almost torn from the flesh'. He is a songwriter's songwriter, whose best writing has been simply, lovingly southern. In the 1970s, when Van Zandt was writing and recording all the time, being southern and making it as a country songwriter meant hoeing pure corn. Which he steadfastly refused to do. Among so much artifice, the genuine, moving measures of Van Zandt's lyrical turns were breathtaking acts of defiance.
Townes' best songs are elusive. Even in those that are positive and seemingly simple there's a shadow around each corner suggesting a shape but not exposing the substance.
When Emmylou Harris recorded his "Pancho And Lefty" for the "Luxury Liner" album, reviewers spent as many words on that one song as they did on the rest of the album. Until then Townes' songs were considered too good for the commercial market. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hoyt Axton, Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bobby Bare, David Olney, Lyle Lovett, Calvin Russell, Don Williams, Cowboy Junkies followed.