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Townes Van Zandt: Could I Count On You?

If the first time you heard Townes Van Zandt involved just the singer and his guitar, getting into his studio albums presents an odd dilemma.

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas easily ranks as one of the more engaging live renderings of American in its vast forms. Obviously, cases can be made that Coltrane’s stand at the Village Vanguard dating to 1961 could serve a similar function. And while jazz possesses a piece of just about ever culture that’s ever set foot on American soil, Coltranes ebullient exclamations are partially the rest of communal setting. Hearing Van Zandt work through a set of dour tunes detailing heartache and travel do something completely different all the while somehow illustrating scenes of the dusty, Western portion of the American experience. Coltrane’s all citified.

Either way, Van Zandt’s sundry live documents, mostly culled and issued after his premature death, craft a stark image of this man. By contrast, his studio albums, even as a certain blue tint colors it all, are filled with all sorts of supplemental instrumentation. In some ways the additives detract from his image as a lonely troubadour. But more importantly, it sugars up a music that when written on just a guitar possessed a sort of sour perversion.

Flyin’ Shoes, as issued in 1978, marks the end of Van Zandt’s career until a resuscitation brought him around again almost a decade later. His second career would last until his death in 1997. But it’s this earlier period that’s thought of in mostly positive terms.

That being said, included here is a cover of “Who Do You Love?” Gone are Bo Diddley’s rhythms, supplanted by a big city country band and lap steel. It’s not a total bummer. But if one was expecting ballads and song craft, those things are in scant supply here.

Of course, there are some more personal moments related throughout Flyin’ Shoes track list. “No Place to Fall” had been in Van Zandt’s repertoire for some time prior to the release of this album. He seems assured of his lyrical lines, phrasing each just as to fit between all those instruments. It might be figured, though, that when those background singers crop up here, they serve to supplement a voice ravaged by drink.

That all fits into Van Zandt’s myth. And at this point in time, it’s difficult to separate reality from that. But wherever the truth actually is, his songs still sound like driving West, all alone, looking for something that might not even be there.