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Loving Touches Added to Tunes by Van Zandt

July 02, 1999|STEVE HOCHMAN

*** TOWNES VAN ZANDT

"A Far Cry From Dead"

Arista Austin

It sounds like a questionable idea with good intentions--taking unreleased solo recordings made by this Texas troubadour in the seven years preceding his 1997 death and adding backing tracks by some of Nashville's best musicians. Leaving just the weathered voice and battered guitar might have made a more affecting epitaph for someone regarded by such esteemed colleagues as Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris as one of the best songwriters of his generation.

But the arrangements are lovingly played and gracefully applied, resulting in a fine collection drawn from nearly 30 years of writing, from sagebrush epics (his classic buddy tale "Pancho and Lefty") to hauntingly personal diaries of his legendary hard living and lengthy deterioration (Van Zandt was 52 when he died of a heart attack).

None hit harder than 1996's "Sanitarium Blues," a nightmare in plain-talk images ("Wrap you up in hospital green / Shoot you full of Thorazine"), with a simple, country-rock arrangement staying largely out of the way of Van Zandt's spoken-word delivery.

The essential track, though, features the subtlest musical additions--"Waitin' 'Round to Die," written back in 1968, was spooky enough when the singer was young. Here it sounds like a voice from beyond the grave saying, "I told you so."

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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