Half-Empty and Half-Full: Van Zandt and George Jones

A Far Cry From Dead. Townes Van Zandt. Arista.

Cold Hard Truth. George Jones. Asylum.

Townes Van Zandt cringed when Steve Earle called him the best songwriter in America, adding that he would shout it standing on “Bob Dylan’s coffee table.”

“I don’t think Steve could get past Dylan’s bodyguards,” Van Zandt replied.

He knew of what he spoke. His widow, Jeanene Van Zandt, says her husband met Mr. Dylan once–at a toy store in Austin, Tex.; Mr. Dylan was surrounded by Snoopy dolls and bodyguards. At the time, Van Zandt was too loaded to do anything other than appreciate the ludicrousness of this meeting.

Loaded was Townes’ usual state. He died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day, 1997, not long after escaping a hospital to get a drink. Two and a half years later, here’s the first major label posthumous release– A Far Cry From Dead (Arista). It’s made up of old tunes Van Zandt re-recorded in a Nashville suburb in the early 90′s. He was trying to dry out. Every day at dawn, he woke up and got to work, recording DAT’s of his old songs and keeping himself away from the bottle.

Last year, Ms. Van Zandt took those DAT’s into a studio in Nashville and added a band to his strumming. Why didn’t she just release the DAT’s as they were? “There are already live albums of Townes signing solo,” she said in a phone interview. That’s true, but who needs a tepid band version of his chestnut “Pancho and Lefty”? Or the man singing, “I got me a friend codeine, he’s the nicest thing I’ve seen/ Together we’re gonna wait around and die” as bland session players make some noise in the background, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Van Zandt is, despite the title of the album, dead as a mackerel.

Of the two new cuts, “Sanitarium Blues” could be the bleakest song he ever wrote: “They hose you down, make sure you’re clean/ Wrap you up in hospital green/ Shoot you full of Thorazine …” The song’s power overcomes his widow’s unremarkable production. Unfortunately, her studio work jokes up the second new song, “Squash,” a Charles Addams-like ditty about road kill (“Some armadillo done gone crazy/ Flew in front of a semi/ Man, looks like squash to me”). It ends up sounding like a white-trash cousin of Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk.”

Before this “manic-depressive” singer with “schizophrenic tendencies” (so said the obituary in The New York Times ) died, he apparently signed over the rights to his live performances to his road manager. In some of those shows, his was a kind of tortured artist act. At a 1996 show in Ann Arbor, Mich., he slumped at the edge of the stage, weeping, until someone led him away. Then headliner Guy Clark waltzed out and cracked, “Was Townes dark enough for you?”

Last year, his widow heard that yet another live album was forthcoming–this one outrageously titled Townes Van Zandt in Pain . She went out into the backyard and had a heart-to-heart with her dead husband. He told her, from the beyond, that the DAT’s were her ticket. So she made this album.

Now, bad Townes is better than no Townes at all. But it’s far better to listen to the great records he made while he was still alive … and drinking.

While the bottle killed Van Zandt, it could not do away with George Jones. Last spring, Mr. Jones was driving and listening to himself singing a song he had just recorded on his tape player when he crashed his sport utility vehicle. Thank God he survived. His new one, Cold Hard Truth (Asylum), is as glorious as a country record gets.

Although Mr. Jones didn’t invent tears-in-your-beer music, he’s the high priest of its platitudes. But this does not imply one needs to dumb down to appreciate George Jones any more than one has to get stupid to overlook the melodrama in opera.

In Cold Hard Truth , Mr. Jones, 67, presents half-a-dozen universal tragedies in which he loses his wife, his girlfriend, his money, his job and his soul. But don’t worry. There are upbeat numbers as well. “Sinners & Saints” starts with a cadence reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–only Mr. Jones sings: “Johnny’s in the jail house sleepin’ it off …”

Johnny had too much to drink, but Cold Hard Truth has no to-die-for alcoholic classic like “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).” There’s a classic line in that song that has the singer sitting in his car in the middle of the night. He leans his head on the wheel “and the horn begins honkin’/The whole neighborhood knows that I’m home drunk again.” That echoes the fact that a pint of vodka was found in his car the night he crashed. Mr. Jones claims he only lost control of the wheel because he got too excited listening to his new song, “Choices,” which contains the lines, “I was tempted at an early age/ I found I liked drinkin’/ Oh! I never turned it down.”

Whether or not George is “turning it down” now, he is the only Nashville singer who can turn 10 pretty good songs into a magnificent album like Cold Hard Truth .