A Public Wake for a Texas Troubadour

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In 1992 I was a freshly minted music critic in Houston, just returned from a sojourn in grungy Portland, Oregon, with a chip on my shoulder about overrated Texas-brand troubadours. So when songwriter Linda Lowe called to let me know about a concert she was promoting at Houston’s Main Street Theater—four songwriters sitting in chairs, trading tunes living-room style—she must have heard my skepticism.

“Townes Van Zandt is on the bill,” she said, trying to sell me.

“What,” I asked, “is a Townes Van Zandt?”

If Linda was appalled, she kindly declined to show it. Instead she hand-delivered a batch of vinyl Van Zandt LPs from her personal collection. One was 1969’s Tomato Records release Our Mother the Mountain. I sat on the floor by the turntable and cued it:

So I reach for her hand and her
eyes turn to poison
And her hair turns to splinters
And her flesh turns to brine
She leaps ’cross the room, she
stands in the window
And screams that my first-born
Will surely be blind.

Who the holy hell was this guy?

Despite a No. 1 country hit—Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s 1982 take on Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”—genuine Townes Van Zandt was and largely remains a cult taste, eagerly passed from acolyte to neophyte. One of the great pleasures of I’ll Be Here in the Morning, Austin journalist Brian Atkinson’s compilation of interviews with 41 contemporary songwriters who knew and/or dug Van Zandt, is watching that moment of discovery—whichever particular song sparks it—splash and ripple into appreciation.

For Guy Clark, it came early and lasted a lifetime. And though Clark is oft-quoted on his more-tragic partner in rhyme, it’s still a shock to hear him recall that Van Zandt had written only two songs when they met: “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” and “Waitin’ Around to Die.”

If those two songs bookmarked Van Zandt’s emotional range, they also mapped the trajectory of his career, and the word that recurs in these short interviews is “sad.” The Van Zandt remembered by his contemporaries was the genius boy who went way out on the limb on the theory that songs matter, and that you had to give everything away to write a true one. It was a myth born in romantic poetry and lived in the shadow of the blues, and Van Zandt kept faith with it until the branch broke. He died in 1997 at age 52, enfeebled, the victim of too much booze and too much rambling. This book’s younger voices, the ones who discovered Van Zandt in his declining years, describe not just an under-appreciated songwriter, but a textbook alcoholic and unpredictable drunk more easily tolerated by old friends than by fresh-eared novitiates.

Not everyone gets Van Zandt, and Atkinson includes an occasional tonic to cut the inevitable bittersweet. The wife of Billy Joe Shaver, unmoved by his poetic prowess, suggests that “Townes Van Zandt could make a lot of money selling razor blades at his shows.” Kevin Russell of Austin’s The Gourds “was not impressed with his voice or his playing style … I just thought he was one of those hack Texas guys … .” Russell eventually heard Live at the Old Quarter and came around, but unlike many hagiographers, he remains unprone to overstating the case.

The musical merits are better discussed over cigarettes and cough syrup, but arguing Van Zandt’s greatness isn’t Atkinson’s goal here. Neither is biography. Nor is I’ll Be Here in the Morning the place for the uninitiated to start. That would be 2004’s Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, or Live at the Old Quarter. This book is a little more like a public wake.

Still, you can learn a lot about a guy from his wake. I learned that Van Zandt was “a real snob. He didn’t like anything. He could keep his mouth shut louder than anybody … .” I learned that he (at least) once “chained himself to a tree so he wouldn’t drink.” In 1972 his 19-year-old girlfriend was stabbed to death while running an errand for him while he recorded High, Low and In Between in California. Among songwriters at least, Van Zandt’s most widely admired song seems to be “Snowin’ on Raton.”

Knowing such things isn’t necessary, and facts hardly define a legacy that, according to these interviews, is less a matter of style than of commitment to the art. But one likes to know them anyway. It may be heresy to say of Texas’ most vehemently acclaimed songwriter, but Townes Van Zandt was equally adept at generating, in his inadequate-to-fame way, a cult of personality. Jack Ingram wrapped it up for me: “You just know that this guy has a connection with a deeper place. I don’t put in Townes to listen to a song; I put it in to listen to him.”

Observer copy editor Brad Tyer’s current favorite TVZ song is the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss cover of “Nothin’.” His first book, Opportunity, Montana, will be published by Beacon Press in spring 2013.

Brad Tyer is the Observer's managing editor.

  • raja

    I used to write for a living. I appreciate a piece that says the almost unsayable. It’s almost impossible to describe Townes to someone who hasn’t been “bitten” by him. But this piece comes as close as any I’ve seen and maybe says it perfectly. He was — with apologies to old Winnie’s immortal line about Russia — a riffle wrapped in an enigma (I know it’s not a complete quote). But I’ve come to believe, like Townes, I guess, that writing the perfect song is the ultimate writing challenge.

    some folks challenge the idea the humans are just high-grade animals. Townes carries the torch at the front of that parade.