Legends: Townes Van Zandt

I used to wake and run with the moon
I lived like a rake and a young man
I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds
My laughter the devil would frighten
The sun, she would come and beat me back down
But every cruel day had its nightfall
I’d welcome the stars with wine and guitars
Full of fire and forgetful

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– From “Rake”

Those in the know say how it goes
You plan on reapin’, you better sow
You plan on sleepin’, you better keep movin’
Sleepin’ ain’t allowed around here you know
Tell me, please, when the rollin’s over
Me and my baby gonna have some fun
Bury our backs in a bed of clover
Smile in style while the sun goes down

– From “Cowboy Junkies Lament”

“There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.”-Townes Van Zandt


photo by Al Clayton

It’s 10 o’clock at night on an abandoned Music Row. The year is 1985. In a third-floor office in an old house that serves as the offices for the Oak Ridge Boys’ Silverline/Goldline Music Publishing, Steve Earle brings the chair he’s leaning back in down hard, flipping his hair out of his eyes for emphasis.

He may be doing the very first interview for Guitar Town, an album that will bring the hardcore blue collar back into country music and fire the rock fringe to a steely edge, but there was a far more important point to make. Leaning forward, he announces, “Townes Van Zandt is the best damned songwriter in the world—and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Swagger? Bravado? The brazen declaration of a young man about to explode? Absolutely. But for Earle—and the quote heard ‘round and around the world—it was also a matter of homage to a man who set the bar for a maverick kid who couldn’t seem to walk enough of a line to get and keep a record deal.

Never mind that his record would be cited by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Spin, The Chicago Tribune and beyond as not only one of the year’s great debuts, but one of the year’s finest records, period. Nor that Guitar Town—along with Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., and the soon-to-be-arriving Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and k.d. lang—would ignite a progressive/traditional country revolution, which Earle would deem “the Great Credibility Scare of the late ‘80s.”

No, Earle was raised in the realm of the great Texas troubadours. For them the song was everything. The song was holy, the master to be served and honored. Indeed, the song was the reason for being. These were taskmasters pure and simple—and they kept their standards high.

“I remember Townes was in the audience one night,” Earle said of their first meeting. “And I knew it was him. He kept yelling for ‘The Wabash Cannonball,’ and said, ‘How could I be a folk singer if I didn’t know ‘The Wabash Cannonball’?”

And Earle, equally brash, silenced the sinewy songwriter with a dead-perfect rendition of TVZ’s wickedly difficult “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.” It was the beginning of a Captain and the Kid mentorship that was both tough love and exacting standards—two things that define who Earle is today as a man, an activist and an artist.

“Well, it wasn’t like Townes was gonna go down to Music Row and go ‘produce this’,” laughs Grammy-winning, Texas expat, artist/songwriter Rodney Crowell. “Those performances were moments—and the recordings were documents, not productions. That wouldn’t work, because you knew he was living that shit.

“I mean, back in ’72, when Townes would hit town, staying at Amy Martin’s place, all us wannabe writers at the time would stand around roasting weenies, all wanting to write songs with him… and he’d be upstairs kicking dope. He seemed so exotic and hardcore.”


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  2. Holly Gleason needs to be commended on this piece. This is one of the finest articles I’ve read about Townes, and one of the only ones that really focused on who Townes was and about his extraordinary gifts instead of putting other things front and center.
    Quite simply, Townes Van Zandt was the greatest songwriter who ever lived.
    -chris edwards

  3. What an amazing piece on Townes. Thank you, Holly Gleason! I’ve seen the documentary film but this essay got closer to the heart of Townes for me. And I love those opening lyrics from “Rake”–so forthright and self-lacerating.

    Excuse the personal connection but back in about 1986, I saw Townes and Guy Clark at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and a fellow fan got invited backstage by Guy for a photo with him. The fan invited me along and we went backstage at intermission to a small room where guess who was holding court! I was more of a Guy Clark fan at that point, but I’ve never forgotten what it felt like in that room with Townes ramblin’ on and the rest of us a bit spellbound–

  4. Gaud bless TVZ ….. the man was flawed … but to me a non family member he could do no wrong. He just did not not live long enough, or maybe he jest lived as long as he wanted to. What ever the case he made my life brighter with his music.

  5. I too felt that this was a super article on the man and his music. It did not focus on his (and all of our) more human failings. Judge the man on what he left behind. Townes left a wealth of material to us all. He will be missed.

    Great job Holly and to all the AS staff! Love your rag!


  6. Never has there been an artist that better captured the complexity of the human condition, born from life lived, the sorrow of regret, and the desire for things yet undone; combined all this with the gift to entwine the everyday experiences of living life on the tethered fringe of the American fabric and you have the brilliance and gift of Townes.

  7. This is a great article. Usually, the pitfalls of Townes are highlighted, the negatives are buttressed and then the apologetics begin! Not here!

    Thank you!

  8. I loved this article. Probably the only article I read this time. I definitely coveted it. Snuck it into my bed to read alone and in private. I get such a kick out of reading new things about Townes. Little bits and pieces keep surfacing about him. I love it. Keep ’em coming.

  9. My brother Mike and I went to see Townes perform at Sam Millers in Richmond, Va somewhere around ’92 or so. Townes was firmly in the saddle that nite and was brilliant. During the break he magnanimously autographed our TVZ songbooks and talked with us about songwriting and the road. Ram rod thin and bright as the fire that still burns.

  10. Well, I’d say that the meaning behind the statement that there’s nothing but blues and zippity do dah just means what it says: Blues(which I’m a big fan of) gets down to the true nitty gritty feelings of life-and it was the Townes Van Zant reality-his life was filled with the blues and so his music was essentially different variations on the blues theme—-and the happy upbeat stuff that a lot of folks seem to never vary from in their writing and songs is the zippity do dah he spoke of.

  11. Back in 93 or 94 Townes came to Eugene Oregon and did a show there at John Henry’s. Before the show he was a little shaky, and he had to be taken out to get a couple of drinks to start the show. Once he warmed up on the stage, he took possession of the guitar, microphone and audience and did what he does best. A completely memorable night. I had two of his records with me that night, “Our Mother the Mountain” and “Flyin’ Shoes” and he was kind enough to autograph both of them for me. He even did a little desert scene artwork on the FS album. I treasure those type of moments and still try to make them happen whenever possible. You learn to “get it while it’s there” because if you wait too long, it won’t be there any more……….

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