Towns Van Zandt is a name I’ve known for a long time. And he has a reputation as a country / folk pioneer that makes me know I should have listened to him long before now. And this week, I finally got the inspiration to do something about it. Listening to Chris Shifflett’s awesome podcast, Walking the Floor, I heard an interview with Steve Earl. In said interview, Earl talked briefly about his friendship with Van Zandt and his tragic demise. In an interview full of amazing stories, this one stood out the most. Which made me finally listen to Towns Van Zandt and Delta Momma Blues.
Earl also talked a lot about the obstacles people like he and Van Zandt faced in the 60s and 70s. Mainly, the rock world thought they were too country and old fashioned, while the country world of Nashville thought they were too long haired, rock and roll and modern. Listening to Delta Momma Blues’ opening pair of FFV and the title track, it sounds pretty bloody traditional and country to my 2016 ears. Acoustic guitar, bass lines that could be played on a moonshine jug, with fiddle flourishes for colour. As much as I like these songs and this sound, it’s hard to think of a time when it was considered too modern.
The country feel is abandoned totally on Only Him or Me (and again later on the tender Tower Song and Come Tomorrow), the kind of acoustic gentleness that would be right at home on a Cat Stevens record. But it’s right back to the twang with the ho-down breather of Turnstyled, Junklpiled. Complete with a plucked up banjo.
The “Detla” and “Blues” of Delta Momma Blues are put to literal use on Brand New Companion. Slow, rambling, full of heartbreak and life mistakes, the repetitive lyrics, mournful mouth harp and ambling swing are delta blues at their most simple and traditional. The blues get a little more on the rock side with Where I Lead Me and it’s the perfect kind of energy injection for this late stage in the album’s run time as Van Zandt ramps up for the run home. A run home that ends with Nothin’, the kind of song that sounds like it could be sung by striking workers outside a Kentucky coal mine.
Towns Van Zandt wrote amazing songs. Towns Van Zandt wrote even better lyrics. Towns Van Zandt was a great musician and singer. But there’s something more elemental than those skills that makes Delta Momma Blues so effective. It’s what’s driving the music, lyrics and vocals. This may sound really wanky, but you can hear Van Zandt’s heart and soul in his music in a way that not very many musicians, even some of the greats, ever mange to pull off this well and this organically.