Bentley's Bandstand: Townes Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Elvis Presley

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Nils Lofgren

Brian T. Atkinson, I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. In his heyday, which started in the late '60s and ran through most of the '70s, ephemeral music guru Townes Van Zandt would be the last person expected to have books written about him, or be canonized in any way. The rail-thin Texan ran the streets hard, so often ending up on the wrong side of life that just his continued existence constituted a major miracle. But that never stopped the songs; he wrote a satchel full of crippling classics that still sound stronger than anyone else's. Seriously.

Author Brian T. Atkinson took on the holy quest of interviewing dozens of followers of Van Zandt's musical grail, and each in their own way sheds a light on the man's achievements. What's amazing, though, is how hard it is to really get a handle on what made the singer-songwriter such a force. Even those like best friend Guy Clark are ultimately at a loss to capture the quicksilver genius of Townes Van Zandt, who had the physical feel of tracing paper: standing next to him it was often like he wasn't there. That ghostly greatness often snapped into outlandish behavior that tested the nerves of those closest to him, but his undeniable power stayed so passionate that the committed always returned to the Texan's fold.

When Van Zandt died on New Year's Day, same as Hank Williams did, in 1997 tears were shed far and wide, but few were really surprised. He had been living on the razor's edge for over 30 years and had used up most of his angels already. This book will remain the next best thing to having him with us, and thank goodness for that. And there's always the music, still capable of changing the color of the world with a single song.

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Nils Lofgren, Old School. For insiders Nils Lofgren is someone who gets to ride in the front seat. His early years with Grin and playing with Neil Young had all the markings of an auspicious start. Add the first solo album on A&M Records, easily one of the best debuts of the '70s, and it looked like Lofgren was going to see his name up in lights for a very long time. It almost happened, too, until it didn't. No problem, because soon enough the musician found a starring place in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and never dropped a note.

The years go by and it can seem like Nils Lofgren might have taken his eye off the big picture until an album like this shows up and points out the full hand he's always had. The way the rocker confronts head-on all the trials of aging and the vagaries of love makes him sound like a street-wise philosopher, which he most assuredly is, with a knock-out musical punch. Guest singers Paul Rodgers, Lou Gramm, and Sam Moore add a depth to several songs and show Lofgren knows exactly what makes him shine.

As a new year starts, especially one with such big question marks thanks to the end of the Mayan calendar, music like this feels like touchstones to carry whenever the dark clouds threaten to loom. There is true wisdom Lofgren shares that can only come from someone who has been in the race a very long time, but even more importantly has never given up. As he says here, "Ain't too many of us left."

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Elvis Presley, Elvis Country—Legacy Edition. The person who changed it all proved no one is above the fray. After turning music upside down and giving teenagers the keys to the kingdom, even Elvis Presley got lost in the ozone and spent the rest of his life trying to struggle his way through. The 1968 television special helped, but only temporarily. Two years later when Presley went into a Nashville studio and recorded these songs it sounded like someone who had rediscovered what he loved most about singing and went for it. Las Vegas beckoned, and once that happened all bets were off. In 1970, there was a light.

At heart Elvis Presley was a blues singer, with a voice strong enough to sing the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and sound good. All styles were fair game. These songs, some stone cold country classics and others veering toward the pop end of the street, give him wide berth to strut his stuff and he never fails. With the A-team Nashville cats backing him up, it only took a few days to nail the music on (I'm 10,000 Years Old) Elvis Country to the RCA Studio B wall. The second album, Love Letters from Elvis, feels somewhat strained but thanks to The Big E's vocal chops manages to make it over the hump in fine form.

In the end Elvis Presley paid the price for climbing the mountaintop. After his mother died and he got out of the Army everything changed. Bad movies, mediocre albums, weight gain, and the rest of the heartaches grabbed a lot of the headlines, but underneath all that was a singing fool who could always find something in a song that he liked. The '50s might have been his crowning heyday, but Presley's voice was his best friend to the very end. For that, we owe him everything.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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