Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Imagine hundreds of Texans packed as sardines into a rickety old Houston bar, The Old Quarter. The air conditioning is broken. A few people shoot pool upstairs. Motes of dust hang like flecks of citrine in the fading Texas sun. Out comes Townes Van Zandt: sad looking, worn down, a little drunk, wielding his guitar like a retired executioner chopping wood. He talks a little. A few people listen. He sets to playing something on his guitar and singing words which ring like gunshots. There’s shift, then, a little electricity in the air. The crowd goes silent, an unusual occurrence in The Old Quarter, but any unsuspecting crowd would be stunned by the tiny tragedies he makes feel so large.
Townes Van Zandt sits, without much debate, in the very highest echelon of songwriters. Shoulder to shoulder with Bob Dylan and the rest of them is this down-on-his-luck Texas Troubador. With a few hits under his belt, “Pancho and Lefty” being perhaps the most famous, and a solid cult following, it can be said that Townes has achieved some degree of a lasting legacy. A legacy that is best stamped upon Live at the Old Quarter. The album is effectually a greatest hits volume performed live one evening at The Old Quarter.
The album starts out strong as can be with a song that would go on to be covered by the likes of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, though their rendition fails to capture the same depth of feeling that Townes does here. “Pancho and Lefty” tells the story of two ex-banditos, one tragically killed and the other just… retired. In Ohio. How he “got the bread to go, there aint nobody knows,” though.
The second track is another highlight. Perhaps the best indicator of the raw songwriting prowess of Townes, “Mr Mudd and Mr Gold” is a whirlwind of a poker game retold as a fantastical war. “If you feel like mud you’ll end up gold, if you feel like lost you’ll end up found” is the closing lyric which lays the whole thing to bed. The songs roll out from here each somehow better than the next. “Two Girls” is a mildly psychedelic, cryptic exploration of love and death. “White Freightliner Blues” is a rollicking dance that manages to make semi trucks feel romantic as can be.
The more emotionally weighty songs are where the casual listener can really experience the quality of Townes’ songwriting. “Waiting ‘Round to Die” is a chilling history of abuse, addiction and hopelessness. “Lungs” is a near hallucinogenic depiction of surrender and apocalypse. “Seal the river at its mouth/ Take the water prisoner/ Fill the sky with screams and cries/ Bathe in fiery answers” sings Townes. That the same writer can make songs as lovely as “To Live is to Fly,” as hilarious as “Talking Thunderbird Blues” and as terrifying as “Lungs” or “Waiting ‘Round to Die” demonstrates the depth of his genius.
Townes Van Zandt is the most criminally under recognized songwriter of all time; Live at the Old Quarter is the evidence of this. Few other artists can stand up to the size, variety and immense quality of his discography. To avoid belaboring the point, I recommend this: go listen to Live at the Old Quarter, and make sure to pay attention. You’ll start to feel the same, in time.