Townes Van Zandt is a troubadour, a wandering bard, the closest thing we have in the '90s to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. His country-folk songs—tall tales and character studies of hoboes, prostitutes, gun-slingers and other outcasts—have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard. Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and others. But his own collections appear rarely, and this new one is something to prize. Like Woody and Hank, this 50-year-old Texan exists beyond fashion: Songs like his early classics "Pancho & Lefty" and "Tecumseh Valley" or this album's tersely tragic "Marie" and the darkly humorous "Billy, Boney and Ma" could have been set down in the 1890s by a lonesome cowboy, in the '20s by an Appalachian tune-smith or by a Depression-era Dust Bowl balladeer—and they probably will be sung well into the digital age.
Van Zandt's vision is bleak, the characters in his songs struggling against poverty, booze and rotten luck. Even the humblest dreams shatter. But he also has an antic streak, a knack for charming whimsy, like "If I Was Washington" with its punning wordplay, and his love songs are all the more moving for the backdrop of blasted hopes. "Katie Belle Blue," written for Van Zandt's daughter, is this album's strongest tune—gazing on his little girl, this melancholy, rough-hewn man sounds stunned to find himself, of all things, happy. (Sugar Hill)