Sunday, March 16, 2008
Townes Van Zandt "No Place to Fall" with Chips Moman at American Studios, Nashville
My good man Red Kelly over at the B-Side just finished up his superb four part series on the career of Chips Moman with a great post on the Chips' move to Nashville and an epilogue to Tommy Cogbill. Since Red is one of the people that inspired me to do this, I though this week I'd write an addendum to that series with Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes" recordings at American Nashville.
Townes's story story is well-documented: the rise and perpetual fall of the great American songwriter from his well-off family background in Fort Worth, to the mental breakdowns and insulin shock therapy, to the life on the road, to the retreats from the world, to his attempted returns and finishing with, sadly, his inevitable early death. Due to his reckless attitude and deep involvement with various vices (both external and internal), everyone who spent time with him has numerous stories of Townes' antics, and combined with the heavy, heavy nature of his songs, the myth is just as big as the life.
In most cases of the early death of the artistic "genius," the myth is much larger than the life (see Gram Parsons for example), but in Townes's case, the legend just as true. From the various footage of him off stage recorded over the years, you get the sense that everyday was an adventure just as deep or humorous as the songs. And, by most first hand accounts, the legend was already in place when he was alive. Townes himself even helped build it: according to is friend and guitarist, Mickey White: "He knew he was creating the myth. I would always be amazed by those incredible tales Townes told me. then we'd be on the road and run into some old friends who would bring up these stories without prompting, and they were exactly the same, word for word. My impression was he really didn't have to make that much up. It was so outlandish in the first place." For that story, definitely check out the 1975 Austin music documentary, "Heartworn Highways," and the more encompassing documentary, "Be Here To Love Me" by Margaret Brown, and John Kruth's To Live Is To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt.
"No Place to Fall" has three distinct versions: recorded (1973) and first released (1977) as part of the "Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas" album; recorded by Cowboy Jack Clement for the "7 Come 11" album (1973), but unreleased until "The Nashville Sessions" (1993); and recorded by Chips Moman and released on "Flyin' Shoes" (1978).
By the that time, Townes had recorded, and Kevin Eggers had released on his Poppy label, an album a year since 1968. All of those 6 records have there own high, low and in between (pun intended) moments in all aspects: the songwriting, the performance, and the production, done by Cowboy Jack Clement, Kevin Eggers, or Jim Malloy or some sort of combination of the three (except for his fourth record, Delta Mama Blues, which was recorded and produced in New York by Ronald Frangipane). For the hardcore Townes fans, the production of these records is a distraction: Jack Clement took a good deal of risks on the first two records (For the Sake of the Song and Our Mother the Mountain), adding bellowing strings, background vocals, harpsichords, flutes (?), and just about everything in his bag of tricks. Ironically, most of this stuff was recorded live and not overdubbed, but most people heavily criticize the overproduction, feeling it takes away from Townes' songs. And that's probably true: they bury the vocals with reverb, because that's the way it was done--Townes had a voice with very little range or polish and any producer would've done the same at the time to enhance the vocals. But as one of Townes' closest friends, Guy Clark said, as quoted by Kruth, "It breaks my heart to hear the way they overproduced his stuff. He was not unaware of it. Townes is really the one who's responsible. You can't let him off the hook. He didn't have the time to mix the fuckin' records 'cause he was too busy drinkin' and shootin' dice."
Following the 1972 release of the Late Great Townes Van Zandt, Kevin took Townes and his newest songs back into the studio with Cowboy Jack as producer and Chuck Cochrane as arranger. It was a great batch of songs (perhaps the strongest yet), including "At My Window," "Rex's Blues," "White Freightliner," "Loretta," "Two Girls," and "No Place to Fall." But much to his later regret, Kevin Eggers didn't pay Cowboy Jack, who in turn wouldn't turn over the tapes. The album, originally called "7 Come 11," didn't get released until 1993 (Not surprisingly, Eggers shame is conspicuously absent from the CD: there's no information on the recording session, the date, or the players; all it gives is the lyrics, produced by Kevin Eggers, recorded by Jack Clement, and the original issue date of 1993). Any of the national momentum that had been building for Townes just went up in smoke, and hazy reasons: Eggers claims he didn't release it because he "had such a bad feeling." While undocumented, I believe that it was a lack of money (Eggers was famous for constantly moving around money), having nothing to do with Townes' drinking and drug use. But that's just speculation.
In the time following these sessions, Townes continued his life on the road, found a new girlfriend who would become his second wife, and began a musical tailspin. The touring was just too crazy with in fighting, unfinished shows, smashed fiddles, bad comedy, and Townes' destructive behavior. According to Mickey White again, "Townes' business was goin' out the window. The gigs sucked. He started to lose interest in bein' the great Townes Van Zandt, and he become careless." [Note the picture on the left, above comes from Townes' road manager, Harold F. Eggers, Jr.'s website. Check it out] Eventually, he settled down in a cabin in the mountains of Tennessee (with Cindy and his trusty dog Geraldine) procured for him by the young Steve Earle. Even though out in the middle of nowhere, he had plenty of visitors and the myths and stories continued to grow, including the now famous game of Russian Roulette in front of Earle. During this time, in 1977, Eggers released "Live at the Old Quarter" to regain the fan base (after all no record had come out in 5 years), with or without Townes' assent. Following that, John A. Lomax III (of the family that we all owe so much to) who had taken over the managing job, brought Townes into the studio with some new material and the re-hashing of songs from the unreleased sessions. Lomax got Chips Moman, and Chips got some of the American studios tried and true great musicians for the session, along with some bluegrass help for the album "Flyin' Shoes."
Here's part of the roll call: Phillip Donnelly (guitar), Tommy Cogbill (bass), Bobby Emmons (keyboards), Randy and Gary Scruggs (guitar, mandolin and harmonica), Spooner Oldham (piano), and Chips himself producing and playing guitar. And, in my opinion, it's the best production that Townes ever got. The production is gentle with little added to Townes' voice except some background vocals to enhance the choruses. Most of all, the production really allows the simple melodies of the songs to shine. For example, the first track from the album, "Loretta," layers multiple guitars picking and strumming the melody with a nice slow harmonica foreshadowing the vocals, slowly adds the backing vocals, a steel guitar (from Jimmy Day), a nice interplay between the ebbing organ and the return of the harmonica, then strips them back away for "Sweetest at the break of day . . ." The drumming gets more prominent as the song approaches its climax and the harmonica returns with a touch of that high lonesome (hey, after all, Gary is Earl Scruggs' son). And the song just stays even and cool over all that with the hopeful and whistful finale repetition of "Loves me like I want her to . . ." It's country round picking that you could image being heard with a group of great musicians on the porch of Townes' cabin, as shown in the photograph on the back of the LP.
"No Place To Fall" is one of the many songs in the Townes canon that plays with the idea of love, full of unabashed natural joy and frightening insecurity, against the passage of time. It recurs throughout the early records with varying degrees of simplicity and obtuse imagery: "I'll Be Here in the Morning" from For the Sake of the Song (and the self-titled third LP); "Be Here to Love Me" and "Second Lover's Song" from Our Mother the Mountain; "Only Him or Me" and "Come Tomorrow" from Delta Momma Blues; "Greensboro Woman" from High Low and In Between; "No Lonsome Tune" and "If I Needed You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. It's one of the more simple songs in Townes' canon, and maybe that's why it appeals to me so much. The honesty is all there: "I'm not much of a lover, it's true / I'm here then I'm gone and I'm forever blue / But I'm still wanting you." So is the hope in spite of all that Townes is and does--time will pass "a fast old train," but together it doesn't matter, "wouldn't you take my hand." Like many of his songs, it still hints at that mystery: Is that fall death? Who is he really singing too then? By the time he repeats the first verse at the end, the meaning has changed.
As above, the production takes a nice back seat to the vocals and the melody, slowly building around the guitars, with a touch of reverb on the mandolin to bring it back as the dramatic fill following the second last verse and before the final repetition of the first verse. I particularly love the nice interaction between the swelling organ and the touch on piano from Spooner that dramatizes Townes' reserved vocals. While Kruth calls Townes "laconic" on the record, I hear it differently: it's resigned to the fate of the songs. While it almost sounds detached, Townes has settled into "the same old songs, it wouldn't be long"--the songs have their own natural momentum. And Chips produces and arranges around that--letting the ease of the Tennessee mountains and its musical tradition swirl around the lyrics, building them up and pulling them back as the lyrics go.
For comparisons sake, the version that was recorded by Cowboy Jack Clement, starts with a more plodding beat under a more expressive Townes, suddenly throws a heavy, dirge organ on the second verse against the finger picking and emphasizes the lyrics at odd places with heavily reverbed backing vocals. There's also the hint of a classical sounding string quartet deep in the mix. Everything seems in the background on the track. Here the music seems laconic with really only Townes trying to hold the melody. The hope of the song as opposed to the desolation before it is nowhere to be found.
Obviously, the Old Quarter version is the simplest, with just Townes and his guitar picking and strumming through it. He really hits the lonesome on "I ain't much of a lover," goes stronger on "Time she's a fast old train," then hits gentle on the final verse. Recorded on the last night in 1973 of a 5 night gig at the small club in Houston run by his good friend (and subject of the song "Rex's Blues"), "Wrecks" Bell, the album was released before Flyin' Shoes. Unfortunately, I have no idea about the original reaction to the LP but over the years it has become "the rosetta stone" to Townes fans, since it's got most of his best songs in the simplest setting. To me, that's just the myth of the songwriter rearing its ugly head: if anyone else is involved in a recording, then it takes away from the genius. I just can't believe that: in the right setting (and I think Chips and American was it), the more talent involved can compliment the original song. And frankly, I'd rather hear the collective effort than the auteur.
Off my soapbox, the record was not successful, they're were problems with the tour, Townes ran into more personal problems and the rest of the story is more valleys than peaks. He did, however, leave some of the most incredible songs I've ever heard and some truly great records, with or without the myth.
Thanks for reading and listening. Here's the set list. The first set is all American Studios work in different contexts. And don't forget to check out Red's blog.
Oscar Toney, Jr.; The Dark End of the Street; For Your Precious Love; Bell (Rev-Ola)
Townes Van Zandt; No Place to Fall; Flyin' Shoes; Tomato
Norman West; Words Can't Say; Smash 2123
Sam Hutchins; I'm Tired of Pretending; AGP 106
Rudolph Taylor; Doorsteps To Sorrow; Roman 311
Wilson Pickett; I've Come A Long Way; I'm In Love; Atlantic
Waylon Jennings; Till I Gain Control Again; Ol' Waylon; RCA
O. V. Wright; Heartaches, Heartaches; Backbeat 583
Ester Philips; Try Me; Atlantic 2370
Ray Price; Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me; The Other Woman; Columbia
Solomon Burke; Baby Come On Home; Atlanitc 2314
Willie Mitchell; Willie's Mood; Soul Serenade; Hi
Etta James; Tell Mama; Cadet 5578
Mighty Sam; Fannie Mae; Amy 963 (Papa True Love; Sundazed)
Eddie Hinton; Brand New Man; Very Extremely Dangerous; Capricorn
Bettye LaVette; Shut Your Mouth; Atlantic 2160
Tony Borders; Polly Wally; Revue 11045 (Cheaters Never Win; Soulscape)
Doug Sahm; Crazy, Crazy Baby; Jukebox Music; Antone's
Brenda George; Everybody Don't Know About My Good Thing (Pt. 1); Ronn 60
Mel Tillis; The Games People Play; Sings Old Faithful; Kapp
Clifton Chenier; Release Me; Cajun Swamp Music Live; Tomato
Johnnie Allan; Tennessee Blues; (Promised Land; Ace)
Magic Sam's Blues Band; That's All I Need; West Side Soul; Delmark
Department of Apologies: The podcase starts about 8 minutes in--I was late, sorry.
Department of Additions and Favors:
As chronicled by Backroads of American Music, some of the good fellas in the Southern Soul Group have started a fund to get O. V. Wright a proper head stone at his (as of now) unmarked grave in Memphis. O. V. is one of the true greats and has enhanced all our lives, so let's take a minute and give something back to him and his family. I'll leave the button up on the sidebar.