People forget this, of course, but Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was actually a big record release date. I was at home that morning working on a review of Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt, which would hit stores that day like a sack full of goose down, and I was pretty proud of myself for writing that the heartfelt LP sounded as if it had been recorded with Townes 'open casket in the studio. The artists didn't choose the songs as much as the songs chose the artists. "White Freightliner Blues" fit Billy Joe Shaver like a blue work shirt and John Prine's version of "Loretta" was as bold and vulnerable as dating a dead man's wife. Man, I was on a roll. Then someone called and told me to turn on the TV. Jesus Christ! Can this really be happening?
Five years later, I'm gonna try and finish that review. Poet works better than most tribute albums because the songs are brilliant but not famous (save "Pancho and Lefty") and the contributors were among Van Zandt's dearest friends. Van Zandt was erratic, a pull-the-curtains drunk who'd bet you twenty dollars that the current temperature was an odd number, but he didn't burn his amigos and so, almost four years after Van Zandt's death of a heart attack at age 52, they came to this studio wake bearing a pot-luck of homage. Guy Clark brought "To Live's to Fly"; the Flatlanders emerged with "Blue Wind Blue"; Cowboy Junkies sprinkled spooky all over "Highway Kind." Willie Nelson contributed "Marie," the most desolate tune of them all. Someone had to do "Pancho and Lefty," so ol 'Delbert McClinton got a call to toss on the sauce and serve it up tangy.
"Toss on the sauce and serve it up tangy?" The dreaded food analogy. It's over. Whatever I had going for me the morning of 9/11; I've lost it. This was the last music I heard before everything changed and so rather than struggle to describe it, I'd rather listen to it. Right now, Nanci Griffith is doing "Tower Song," singing lyrics of fear and pride over that soothing melody. "You build those towers strong and tall/But don't you see they've got to fall some day."
United by Van Zandt's poetry, these various solo acts sing in one voice, one that stares at life and never turns away.