Recordings of December 2001: Timeless & Poet

Lost Highway 088 170 239-2 (CD). 2001. Luke Lewis, Mary Martin, Bonnie Garner, prods.; Bob Brockman, Michael Hopkins, Mark Johnson, others, engs.; Hank Williams (no relation), mastering. AAD. TT: 43:19
Performance ****
Sonics *****

TOWNES VAN ZANDT: Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt
Pedernales/Freefalls FFE 7019 2 (CD). 2001. Freddy Fletcher, exec prod.; Eric Paul, Michael Timmons, Ray Kennedy, Steve Earle, others, prods. & engs. AAD? TT: 59:17
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Tribute albums are problematic in enough ways that critics and musicians alike routinely say they're not in favor of them, no matter who's being fêted. Almost every such record involves as many studios and engineers as there are performers, so achieving any kind of sonic consistency is nearly impossible. Next, there's usually a mad scramble for material in which several artists want to cover the same song. When the winner is chosen, the others sometimes drop out.

And why does the world even need another tribute record? After all, if the dedicatee's catalog is definitive, why concoct a record of covers by other artists? Then there's the challenge, faced by each performer, of striking a balance between respect for the source and respect for one's own interpretation of a song: too much one way and you get a boring collection of rote covers; too much the other and what began as a compliment becomes an insult.

But those few tribute albums that actually succeed such as Till The Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus (Rounder), Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye, A tribute To Roky Erickson (Sire/Warner Bros), and Deadicated (The Grateful Dead) (Arista) are wonders to behold. When they work, it seems due to a sort of emotional voodoo—a gut feeling that the time was right. Such voodoo is the key ingredient of both of this month's joint Recordings of the Month: Timeless, which features the music of Hank Williams; and Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt.

In the history of country music, only one songwriter stands out as having transcended the genre to enter the canon of the Great American Songbook, along with the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, Hoagy Carmichael, and others: Hank Williams. Such tunes as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Kaw-Liga," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" are American icons. But Williams, who died of alcoholism 48 years ago (at 29) in the back seat of a Cadillac, wrote enough songs that plenty of relatively unknown gems remain; those are what make up half of Timeless.

One hearing of the great Johnny Cash singing "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night" in his usual sepulchral tones and the latent sadness and hurt in Williams' music is starkly apparent. Other standout performances come courtesy of Bob Dylan ("I Can't Get You Off of My Mind"), Lucinda Williams ("Cold, Cold Heart"), and, surprisingly, Keith Richards ("You Win Again"). While a few renditions veer away from the originals' arrangements, most notably Beck's noisily weird cover of "Your Cheatin' Heart," most hew close to Williams' sound. But that doesn't mean it's not thrilling to hear Ryan Adams work his way through a gorgeous, shockingly straight (considering it's bad boy Adams) guitar-and-voice rendition of "Lovesick Blues." Mercifully but notably absent are any mainstream country stars, who would have no doubt wanted to turn in slick, pop versions of these songs.

Less well known than Williams but no less towering a figure—at least in the folky, left-of-mainstream side of country music—is Texan Townes Van Zandt, who also found death in a bottle at age 47, in 1997. Although he sold few records and gained even less fame on his own, the rambling Van Zandt's influence on other songwriters is unparalleled. Van Zandt originals like "Pancho and Lefty" are among the most covered folk/outlaw country tunes of all time. Even more dramatically than the Hank Williams tribute, Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt brims with obscure songs and big talent. Van Zandt confidantes like Guy Clark ("To Live's to Fly"), Nanci Griffith ("Tower Song"), Steve Earle ("Two Girls"), and Emmylou Harris ("Snake Song") give this heartfelt album its unshakable emotional footing. Further poignancy is added by Billy Joe Shaver in a rocked-up version of "White Freightliner Blues" that features on guitar Shaver's son, Eddie, who succumbed to his own personal demons this past year.

While Poet's recording quality doesn't match the gloss and depth of Timeless, it's passable throughout. And while there are a few odd choices among the 15 tracks—Delbert McClinton and "Pancho and Lefty," is a strange match—most of the artists included manage to bring something new to their chosen songs while remaining close to the style and feel of the originals.

But in Poet, as in Timeless, the star is the music. The haunting songcraft and powerful truths inherent in both men's work shines through the work of these loving interpreters.—Robert Baird