Van Zandt sang in a mournful, plainspoken baritone, accompanying himself with a nimble acoustic-guitar style he copped from Lightnin' Hopkins. His poetic lyrics, evident on Our Mother the Mountain, his sophomore effort from 1969, echoed the timeless quality of American traditional music. The occasional string section only heightens the tension felt on these spare, emotionally desolate tunes, though the occasional touches of bright, tambourine-splashed folk add some lift.
On 1970's Townes Van Zandt, he ditched the strings and added drums, even kicking up some noise on "Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel," which recalls mid-'60s Dylan. Otherwise, Van Zandt was working a slower groove, his bleakness firmly intact. And bleakness is the key word here, exemplified by the chilling "Waitin' Around to Die."
Throughout most of the '70s, Van Zandt was living in a secluded Tennessee cabin. This isolation informs Delta Momma Blues, which isn't really a blues album, but more like country-leaning folk. The fiddles and banjos on the sunny "Turnstyled, Junkpiled" are out of character, while the brooding "Nothin'" hits a lot closer to home.
The hint of country found on Delta Momma Blues found its fullest expression on 1978's Flyin' Shoes. Classic country's weepy steel guitars, milieu of broken hearts, and unrelenting sorrow are right up Van Zandt's alley, even if his despair is more deadly than most.
Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack at age 52 -- three years after releasing arguably his finest work, 1994's No Deeper Blue -- wasn't fated to remain an unsung artist. As these long overdue reissues illustrate, he was a talent for the ages.