Townes Van Zandt (1944 – 1997)
For the past few weeks I’ve been watching installments of Sonic Highways a HBO show created by Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters that sets out to compose and record a different song in a different city every week. Their muse along the way is the local music scene and musical heritages found in places like Chicago, Memphis, Austin, or Nashville. It’s highly recommended and is a wonderful insight into the people behind the music in these various cities. Dave Grohl, who has quickly become one of my favorite artists, calls it “a love letter to the history of American music”.
In a recent installment that focused on Nashville, legend after legend remarked that in Nashville it really is all about the songs. The stories they tell, the emotions they release, and the memories they evoke. The songs are what bring that to a realization that we have this shared consciousness. This common element that seems unique to us but is, in the end, human nature.
A number of the artists interviewed, including Steve Earle, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris, mentioned the late Townes Van Zandt. TVZ wasn’t a flashy guy. Not much glitter but when he put pen to paper, and pick to string, he created some beautifully evocative songs that spoke volumes to anyone who listens.
I think I first became aware of Townes through the 1993 release of the live album Rear View Mirror. I had picked it up on the basis that it included his own version of his song “Pancho and Lefty”. I had heard the tune on a Willie Nelson – Merle Haggard album and wanted to know more about the man who wrote it. Willie & Merle had a fuller, more orchestrated version complete with Willie’s Spanish guitar solo (and Merle’s voicing is just deadly perfect) but Townes’ version just tears you apart. You can feel the ominous spectre of death and the life of a fugitive in TVZ’ sparse, matter-of-fact presentation. But, in all due respect, Willie and Merle took the song to the top of the country charts bringing Townes much deserved recognition.
Townes was born in Fort Worth TX in 1944. The Van Zandt’s were a famous Texas family with a line that ran through the Republic of Texas leadership and the founders of Fort Worth. His father gave him a guitar for Christmas when he was 12 and, inspired by Elvis, Towne’s knew what he wanted to do. He went off to college but was brought home by his parents who were worried about his depression and his binge drinking. Later diagnosed as manic-depressive, Townes struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism until he died on New Year’s Day 1997 at the age of 52.
When Townes first started performing he played in clubs with guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, Doc Watson, and Lightning Hopkins. He started out with covers but eventually moved on to originals. He moved to Nashville and began to hone his craft. He always maintained that Hopkins, along with Dylan and Hank Williams were his primary influences.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were his most prolific years. Releasing five albums in as many years he also penned some of his most famous tunes “To Live’s to Fly,” “Pancho and Lefty”, and “If I Needed You”. I’d recommend any of the albums as a place to start listening to TVZ but also consider the 1977 release Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas.
When the fire dancers finish and leave you alone
With nothing but embers and sacks full of stone
That hang round your neck, slicing through to the bone
Will there still be a place for your laughter?
When all your bright scarlet turns slowly to blue
Will you stop and decide that it’s over?
- from: Sad Cinderella by Townes Van Zandt
- “Pancho & Lefty” – Townes Van Zandt
- “If I Needed You” – Townes Van Zandt
- “Nothin'” – Townes Van Zandt
- “Dead Flowers” – Towne’s cover of the Rolling Stones song
- “Sad Cinderella” – Townes Van Zandt