Tributes to Missing Genius

The tribute album can be an iffy proposition. But two recent takes on the concept prove that, at its best, it can be all the notion “tribute” implies, especially when done with the love that these albums signify.

CD: Townes by Steve Earle — The late Townes Van Zandt was one of the giants among roots singer-songwriters, and an icon here in Texas where I live as well as beyond. Earle is likely his most devoted disciple, once making the statement that he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and declare Van Zandt the world’s greatest songwriter. In a recent New York Times article, Earle repudiated his oft-quoted remark, but its point is still salient: Van Zandt’s talent as a writer at its best is on the same caliber as Dylan’s finest. And Earle proves that with his recording of 15 Van Zandt songs. I’m a Van Zandt fan who believes that, with certain exceptions (like his album At My Window), he was not well recorded for the most part, ergo not so well represented by most of his studio albums. He also struggled throughout his life with alcoholism and drugs and a welter of inner demons prior to dying at age 52 on Jan. 1, 1997 (the same death date as the similarly troubled genius Hank Williams, a fact that would have no doubt delighted Van Zandt’s perverse imagination). But the brilliance of his compositions reaches their fullest fruition as recordings and renditions here. Starting out with Van Zandt’s best-known songs that were most-recorded by others, “Poncho and Lefty” and “White Freightliner Blues,” Earle roams through gems from his musical hero’s catalog, rendering them with love, passion and imagination. For those who knew Van Zandt’s music and appreciated it, this disc is essential listening. And for anyone who would like to discover the man’s genius, there’s no better place to start than here.

CD: Man Of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute To Chris Gaffney by Various Artists — Songwriter, singer, accordionist, guitarist and bandleader Chris Gaffney was not a well-known talent when he died from liver cancer last year at age 57. And yes, full disclosure, he was someone I knew and loved as a man and talent, and I cherish the memory of him on my couch with my guitar one late night after the bars closed singing one song after another. And his best friend who compiled and produced this album, Grammy-winning Americana music star Dave Alvin is a dear friend of mine. So, yeah, this album touches me deeply, but it’s not just the personal connection. A range of 17 artists — including top names like the late Freddy Fender, Boz Scaggs and master songwriter Dan Penn to roots music luminaries such as Joe Ely, Calexico, Robbie Fulks, Alejandro Escovedo and Alvin — deliver wonderful takes all on his songs in a collection capped by a final track by Gaffney himself. As Alvin notes, “Gaff” never got the breaks, fame or remuneration that other far less talented artists have enjoyed. But this splendid salute makes the case for how special his music was. And it’s not just that Gaffney was also a special man to me that makes this set bring tears to my eyes. Rarely has a departed artist received such a fine tribute as this.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2009

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