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Our critics' picks in new releases

Given the fond regard with which Townes Van Zandt was held by legions of musicians, it's curious why an all-star tribute to the late, great singer-songwriter (who died from the disease of alcoholism on New Year's Day, 1997) took so long to come together. But the results are better than could possibly have been imagined, making Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt well worth the wait.

Born into a well-to-do Fort Worth, Texas, family in 1944, Van Zandt's immense sensitivity and intellect would lead him to compose a canon of classic songs. But those same qualities also produced a deep sadness that engendered misguided reactions: He was given insulin shock treatments as a young man and was later rejected by the draft as mentally unfit to serve. In notes accompanying the CD's release, Van Zandt's 32-year-old son, J.T., calls these reactions a misreading of someone who had "a lot of insight into the problems and the emotions that people feel."

And those insights are evident throughout Poet, which, with its raucous rockers and quiet ballads, is as much a roller-coaster ride as the ever-changing moods of Van Zandt himself. A close Fort Worth friend, Guy Clark, opens the proceedings with an exquisite acoustic rendering of "To Live's to Fly." Billy Joe Shaver cranks his voice up a key to pull off a great Van Zandt soundalike vocal on "White Freightliner Blues." And the Cowboy Junkies are a perfect fit for his moody ballad, "The Highway Kind."

In fact, Poet's greatest success is the way the songs fit the personalities of the musicians paying tribute: John Prine's twinkle-eyed rendering of "Loretta," Lucinda Williams' haunting turn on "Nothin'" and Robert Earl Keen's unforgiving retelling of "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold." Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Pat Haney, Steve Earle, Ray Benson, Willie Nelson and J.T. Van Zandt also turn in knowing performances.

"I hate that he was such a tortured guy," says friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore about Van Zandt. "But every now and then, this light would come through, and you knew that there was really a good, good soul in there." Adds Billy Joe Shaver, "As far as I'm concerned, he was the best songwriter that ever lived."

Listen to Poet, and you'll have to agree.

  • Our critics' picks in new releases

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Latest in MUSIC: Soundbite

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