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Home Reviews Music Reviews ‘A foundational, cornerstone artist’ - Veteran producer talks about Townes Van Zandt and new release

‘A foundational, cornerstone artist’ - Veteran producer talks about Townes Van Zandt and new release

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Reading through record producer Cheryl Pawelski’s resumé is like rubbing shoulders with some of the music industry’s heaviest hitters.

    Pawelski’s worked on boxed sets for The Band, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson.
    She’s been involved in soundtracks from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Juno,” “Raging Bull” and “Woodstock.”
    And, she was also part of the team that produced select reissues from The Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Chicago, Wanda Jackson, Otis Redding, Leon Russell, Willis Alan Ramsey and Warren Zevon.
    Pieces from her collection have been exhibited at museums in Seattle, Woodstock and Los Angeles.
    Pawelski’s company, Omnivore Recordings, has just released Townes Van Zandt’s “Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972.”
    According to the liner notes for the new records, none of Van Zandt’s records sold more than 6,000 copies when they were originally released. In fact, the Fort Worth native has become more popular in death –  he died on Jan. 1, 1997, exactly 40 years after the death of one of his songwriting heros, Hank Williams – than he ever was in life.
    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had a hit with Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” as did Emmylou Harris.
    Pawelski took a break from her pre-Grammy activities last week to talk about the new records, her musical journey and why Townes still matters.

    News-Telegram: Considering all the hoops you must have jumped through, how long did it take you – start to finish – to make this project happen?
    Cheryl Pawelski: I started the project when I worked at EMI/Capitol in 1996 alongside some other projects like The Band reissues and boxed set, various Beach Boys projects and a whole host of other things. Some projects just take longer than others to come to fruition for a myriad of reasons.  
    At the time, I was looking into the possibility of reissuing the Townes Van Zandt albums, “High Low & In Between” and “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt” and the first step in producing a reissue is to research what exists on tape.  
    I found that the session tapes were in the vault and began looking for what I had hoped to be unissued tracks, demos and alternate versions that would shine a new light on those two great albums.
    I left EMI/Capitol in 2002 without completing the projects, and moved on to other labels, but never forgot about some of the tracks I heard.  
    It's funny because The Band boxed set, “A Musical History,” also wasn't released before I left, that didn't get released until 2005, but I continued work on that as a consultant as it was already far down the line though it took three additional years to complete it.

    N-T: How did you discover Townes?
    CP: Well, it seems like I've always known the songs.  
    I probably first heard a Townes song via Emmylou Harris in the 1970s as I've long been a big Emmylou fan, who isn't really? She's a national treasure to be sure!
    I do remember being completely enchanted by the Willie & Merle cover of "Pancho & Lefty." So much so that I bought the single when it came out and still own it to this day.  So my discovery process was other artists covering his songs.  
    It took longer for me to trace just who wrote those songs, but that's a natural progression.
    The deeper you look into the details of music, the more you discover, the more you discover, the better your ears get tuned into listening, the more you listen, the more there is to listen to ... then suddenly, it's your job!  
    I like to say that I've turned my obsession into a profession. Lucky? I don't know.  
    I find that the more you know about music, the less you know, because it's an endless journey, a lifelong one, but what's great about music is once you know a song, you take it with you. No one can take that away.
    Townes songs are great travelers!

    N-T: Darrell Scott, the talented Nashville singer/songwri-ter/studio musician, once said, "All roads lead to Townes." Do you agree?
    CP: Gosh, well first Darrell Scott is amazing.  
    Second, I'd say a lot of roads lead to Townes.  
    I think if you're a serious music fan and you follow a trajectory similar to the one I describe above, you wind up on the doorstep of great, great songwriters and certainly Townes Van Zandt has an address on that street, right?

    N-T: What was it like for you, hearing the tapes of the songs on these CDs, for the first time?
    CP: Well, it's one of the biggest joys of my job, the discovery aspect of the research.  
    Sometimes when I'm in the studio putting up tapes to listen through to determine what might be compiled for a release, the realization that you're the first person to hear this or that since it was recorded is pretty amazing.
    A lot of responsibility comes with that, too. Some recordings are better left on that piece of tape and nowhere else.  
    The skill comes in conceptualizing a release of unissued recordings that adds something important to an artists' discography and/or legacy. It's also imperative to maintain a high quality standard.  
    Every day is not a good day in the studio, somethings work, somethings don't –  just like anyone else's day, and it's important to know the difference between something you might find to be fun or cool, and something that should actually be presented out in the world.

    N-T: Do you have a favorite cut on the release?
    CP: I love "T For Texas," as it's really fun, but there's so many great songs.  
    I'm glad to have more versions of "To Live Is To Fly" and "You Are Not Needed Now."

    N-T: The liner notes by music journalist/author Colin Escott are spectacular. They have something for Townes newbies and veterans alike. Was it your intent for them to be this detailed?
     CP: Yes. Colin is one of my favorite music writers, and I've had the terrific good fortune of working with him now for some time.    
    For me, he always strikes the right balance of information and point-of-view. His writing is detailed and fun to read. The fun-to-read part is the key for me as a reader.  
    Knowing how much he, too, is a fan of Townes' work, well, he was my only call.

    N-T: Where did you find the cover photo for the CDs?
    CP: One of my Omnivore co-founders and partners, Greg Allen, is our designer.  
    He's also a photographer, so he usually gets in touch with as many of the original photographers for our projects as he can. He spends mountains of time making sure the photos, design, concept, look and feel of the packaging is era and artist appropriate.  
    In this case, he was able to find the photographer Steve Salmieri who took the photo on "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt."  
    Steve was very kind and worked with Greg to get us additional period-correct images to use. To say that we agonize and obsess over getting things correct, from sound to art and everything in between, would be an understatement. But, it's what the music and the artist deserve and Greg is an amazingly versatile designer.

   N-T: Townes said "There are only two kinds of music – the blues and zippedy doo dah." The last cut, coming in at 1:05, is full of happiness and light – a quality rarely found in Townes’ later work. Where did you find this one? Any plans to develop it into a tune with lyrics?
    CP: That was just a little guitar doodle, something that was just a little downtime, in between song  noodling best I can recall. Having not been in the studio, I have no idea what the intent was – it doesn't really seem like 'a song' but I wanted to just include it as a little hidden moment.

   N-T: Do you have a favorite young musician who carries  Townes' torch?
  CP: Wow, there are so many artists, older and new, that have been carrying the Townes torch, that I always feel it unfair to spotlight just one.
    The beauty of it is the legacy is being kept alive and handed down across generations of musicians and fans. I hope we were able to contribute just a little.
    If someone new comes to this music for the first time because we did this, well, mission accomplished, the world just got a little better!

    N-T: Is there anyone you'd like to publicly thank for their help?
    CP: Yes, Jarrett McGehee and Kevin Carson from EMI and Trip Aldredge and Jeanene Van Zandt of the Townes Van Zandt estate.  
    This project would still be on my wish list of records I'd like to own if it weren't for all of them.  
    All were very kind and enthusiastic, and Jarrett, especially, was relentless in his willingness to work towards seeing this project happen. It probably didn't hurt that he's a Texas native!

    N-T: Why now? Why Townes?
    CP: Well why Townes is the easy question, because he's simply one of my favorite songwriters. Now, because we finally got it done! It's been a long time in the works and with Omnivore, I was finally able to complete the project and get it up and out. Townes Van Zandt has always been a foundational, cornerstone artist for me personally, so it's really wonderful to release this collection.

To watch a video of Townes performing "Pancho and Lefty," click here.
“To Live’s To Fly – The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt” by John Kruth ($19.99) and “A Deeper Blue” by Robert Earl Hardy ($14.95) are excellent biographies.
For more about Omnivore Recordings, click here.




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