Rear View Mirror
Sugar Hill Records
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
Listening to the songs of Townes Van Zandt is like taking a trip into the American landscape without leaving the comfort of your armchair.
Rear View Mirror is a collection of seventeen of his best songs, leading off with Pancho and Lefty", perhaps the writer's most recognized work. Fellow Texan Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had a number-one hit with it in 1983, and several other artists have covered it since, but it's Townes and his lonesome guitar that take you to the soul of the song. With an easy drawl he sings, "Living on the road my friend was gonna keep you free and clean, now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath's as hard as kerosene..." Right away you know that this is no ordinary song and this is no ordinary songwriter. His stories speak of a man who loved deeply, lived hard, and felt despair, as well as desire. In For the Sake of the Song he explains "I'm not the one to tenderly bring her soft sympathy. I've just begun to see my way clear and it's plain if I stop I will fall." His tone is almost apologetic and the accompaniment is spare.
Townes Van Zandt was truly a poet - each word was well placed, and each description was nothing short of telling. The song To Live is to Fly says "Days, up and down they come, like rain on a conga drum. Forget most, remember some, but don't turn none away." And in No Place to Fall he says, "Time, she's a fast old train. She's here, then she's gone, and she won't come again."
Rear View Mirror is not a studio-perfect album, in fact, all songs were recorded live - you're actually sitting in the audience - add or subtract your own smoke. The effect is comfortable because of Townes' easy style and obvious good nature. He tempers sadness with hope and loneliness with the knowledge of love waiting. Nevertheless, he reaches out in his uncertainty in Tower Song with the lines, "You close your eyes and speak to me of faith and love and destiny, as distant as eternity, truth and understanding."
Townes Van Zandt died of an apparent heart attack on New Year's Day, 1997 at the age of 52. He left behind his wife, Jeanene, sons Will and J.T., and daughter Katie Belle. There are many fine web sites devoted to his life and music, one of which is maintained by Jeanene at http://www.townesvanzandt.com.
So, if there's a roadhouse in that part of heaven that is Texas, you can bet Townes is sitting at the bar with Woody, cracking jokes and trading songs waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. As he said, "The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold, so the story ends, we're told. Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty, too. He just did what he had to do."
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Edited by David Schultz.