One of the highlights of the recent Glasgow Americana festival was a night celebrating the late, great Townes Van Zandt. A host of musicians queued up to pay tribute to the man who is surely the lodestone of Americana singers and songwriters, the queue including Norrie McCulloch who sang his own tribute, Mountain Blues, along with his versions of Townes’ songs.
McCulloch has released three sublime albums which pitch him as one of the best artists to have emerged in the Scottish folk/Americana scene over the past few years. The title song of his second album was written beside Townes’ gravesite which McCulloch visited while on a stateside trip and it was when he managed to find a rare copy of a Van Zandt songbook that he embarked on this limited edition EP of Townes’ songs. Recorded back in January, twenty years almost to the day of his demise, the disc is an emotional and affectionate salute to the man famously described by Steve Earle as “the best songwriter in the whole world.”
With Dave McGowan, Shane Connolly, Iain Thompson, Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea constituting The Fireside Sessions, the disc rattles into view with a rollicking version of Dollar Bill Blues, scattershot guitar, banjo and growling electric guitar skittering over some tremendous percussion and double bass, the drums almost jazz like as if Terry Cox from Pentangle was in the drum seat while McCulloch’s gruff Scots’ brogue spits out the words. It’s a magnificent interpretation of an excellent song.
There’s always been a touch of the late sixties folk rock sound in McCulloch’s music and he sprinkles this over No Place To Fall with the result that one can imagine this as a long lost Fairport Convention outtake from Unhalfbricking. Again the drums are a wonder, a splash of cymbals while the guitar is as liquid as Richard Thompson’s back in the day. Flying Shoes follows and McCulloch sticks more firmly to the original in his vocal delivery although the sublime piano playing adds a sense of grandeur to the song. Thus far the songs covered are probably familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Townes. McCulloch next covers a deep cut, the waltz time Don’t You Take It Too Bad, a song perfectly suited for his vocal delivery and given a delicate, mandolin dappled delivery. It’s short, it’s sweet, and just about perfect.
The EP closes with a new version of Mountain Blues, McCulloch’s poignant paean to the man. Although it’s not too dissimilar from the original version it seems here to be more stately, more measured. The piano still strides majestically over the rolling percussion and McCulloch sings with a passion while there’s a brief reprise of the song after several seconds delay with McCulloch leading a singalong of the song’s refrain.
All in all Townes Blues is a splendid although brief snapshot of McCulloch’s undoubted admiration for the man. It’s available as a limited edition EP with handcrafted sleeve and there’s a smaller run of the CD along with a signed and numbered print of McCulloch’s portrait of Townes Van Zandt, a very nice artefact. Details of how to get these are here.
Here’s the original version of These Mountain Blues…