Legends: Townes Van Zandt

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Crowell had originally run into Van Zandt at Houston’s Sand Mountain Coffeehouse in “1970 or ‘71,” where he was initially transfixed by his performing style. “He was a little dangerous, a little out on the edge—not in a Ramones bang-you-over-the-head way, but just that kind of brilliance he had was a little spooky. Just this snake-ish charisma that drew you in…”

And therein lies the enigma that defines Van Zandt’s legend. With two biographies—John Kruth’s award-winning To Live’s To Fly and Robert Earl Hardy’s A Deeper Blue—and a documentary Be Here To Love Me, the facts of his life are more than laid out. Yet, even the concrete details can’t define or hold the man who wrote with a razor and howled like a soul lost.

No, Van Zandt’s gift was his ability to always pass through, to remain somehow transparent and yet unabashedly the most here-it-is person in the room. If you saw him, you couldn’t forget him… and if you heard him, you were going to respond.

“Lungs,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Loretta,” “To Live Is To Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “St. John the Gambler,” “For the Sake of the Song,” “No Place To Fall” and “White Freightliner Blues” are the tip of the iceberg. With a Townes Van Zandt song, there was no way out—only down and through.

“I was driving through Southern Vermont,” recalls jam goddess/rocker Grace Potter, who’s been cited for her own allegorical and deeply personal writing. “It was the summer I got my driver’s license, so this was a total freedom drive. I didn’t need to be anywhere and I was just driving.

“There was a cassette in this pile that said ‘Townes,’ and I had no idea. I didn’t know whose it was… just figured it was some show at Town Hall. But I put it in and ‘Waiting Around To Die’ played, and I couldn’t even drive. I had to pull over because it was so full of pain, but so beautiful at the same time. There was no anger, just this voice letting it go, just put it out there… So poetic that suffering.

“I’d been digging Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, but this was something else. I mean, he’d bunk up at Motel 6s, eat at Denny’s every day, drink himself silly and sing until he fell over… he was that pure and that committed to doing it.

“And those songs could have been played by minstrels in the Medieval days. It was that simple, you know? That basic truth was everything—and he sure owned A Minor!”

Potter is a B-3/Flying V-playing firebrand in her own way. Vivacious. Brilliant. Candid. With her band the Nocturnals, she has toured with Gov’t Mule, My Morning Jacket and the Black Crowes—as well as being a regular on the festival circuit. A world away form Van Zandt’s austerity, her devotion is a witness to the vastness of Van Zandt’s soul-baring connection.

“Success means… that’s never gonna happen to me,” Van Zandt confessed to writer William Hedgepeth, who profiled the elusive artist for the now-defunct Look magazine. “Heaven ain’t bad, but you don’t get a lot done. Selling a lot of records and getting to be a name, you end up knowing it isn’t the same—what you put in isn’t what they get out…

“To me, the music uncovers it all. I don’t even know what a problem is… just a lurking thing.”

Much has been made about Van Zandt’s full-tilt wild side, his privileged background, his deep sadness, and yet, what struck so many who knew him was the brilliance with which he shone. It was a seeming contradiction, and yet it fired some of the most incisive writing into the human condition—be it the homeless soul who falls in love and watches her die in “Marie,” the chilling, bristling “Snake Song” or the distraught “Cocaine Blues.”

“I met Townes in ‘67 or ‘68,” remembers Asleep at the Wheel’s anchor Ray Benson, as his erstwhile progenitors of Western swing enter their fourth decade. “It was the Second Fret, a club in Philadelphia where he was opening for Woody’s Truck Stop, which was Todd Rundgren’s band before the Nazz.

“There was a back room and I’d sneak in back there. One night, there was this guy from Texas who was really bright-eyed and energetic. So different from how he came to be known, you know? But then, it was simple: I wanted to be a songwriter and he was a songwriter. But he was also a traveling troubadour… something very honorable and necessary to really write the truth.

“In Elizabethan times, they were almost messengers who carried truths. In my mind, that’s what Townes did. In traveling, they pick up the stories of the people they meet—and they take them along, but they also influence the people who’re seeing them. In my mind, then, you have to be a troubadour to really be a songwriter.”

There’s a bit more to it than that, although Van Zandt was a big believer in being on the road, being amongst the people. It was also about applying standards that maintained the quality of the songs, the unburnished truths of the lives being captured.

“When we thought we were big stuff,” said perhaps the most iconic of today’s Texas songwriters and arguably TVZ’s best friend Guy Clark remembers of the way they pushed themselves. “We’d sit and listen to Dylan Thomas read his poetry. Now that’ll make you humble.”

It was Clark who challenged a then 21-year-old Crowell to delve into his friend’s song craft. “I remember Guy sitting me down and saying, ‘One of the first things I gotta get you to do is understand how great Townes is…,’ and he really worked to get me to see how poetically inspired his work was. Guy made me listen to everything, every work tape… to show me this is the bar.

“And that poetic nature that’s so richly inside Townes’ work is like standing in front of a Van Gogh or a Renoir. You want to be able to access that part of any artist or writer or poet… They show you what a true artist is capable of doing.”

For one thing, a true artist can melt time and genres. Two dozen years later, at the Proctor School in New Hampshire, 14-year-old Elijah Berlow (a young musician who began cutting his teeth with a band at age 11) turns his fellow students on to Van Zandt. In a world of beats, processed vocals and big productions, Van Zandt’s potency cuts through to yet another generation.

“He’s such a poet,” confesses the high school freshman who is also an acolyte of Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Iggy Pop, “a really, really sad depressed poet. I tell my friends: ‘Listen to the words…,’ cause at first, you know, they don’t; they’re about the sounds. But you put on ‘Flyin’ Shoes,’ and they don’t have a chance.

“I tell ‘em, ‘Keep listening! Over and over ‘til you get it,’ and they always come back blown away. My friends are inspired. They wanna write songs, but then they realize this is way hard… And, sometimes, I’ll use Steve Earle, one of the songs he covered, then move to Townes straight, but it’s always the same thing.

“He’s such a realist, you’ve got nowhere to go. It’s complicated what’s in the songs…. Then, he makes it so simple, the way he writes it all down, you can’t miss what he’s singing about.”

That poetry, which translates across generational lines also translates across cultures. Israeli superstar/songwriter David Broza—who has worked with the words of prominent poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop and Federico Garcia Lorca—recognized the essence in the singer/songwriter, who would touch Broza’s career in the most startling of ways from beyond the grave in their one and only encounter at Houston’s Main Street Theater.

“I just sensed someone who’s very pure as an artist,” Broza marvels. “He spread around the chair where he was sitting [with] all these charms, these lucky charms people had given him—and it was in that purity that you got a real sense of what folk music is, what kind of a place it comes from.

“I was at a point in my career where I was still proving myself to audiences. I didn’t have a hit, so I was having to go from stage to stage, working my way across the country. I knew I needed to impress him to keep him interested, so he wouldn’t go to his secondary songs, but then it seemed there were no secondary songs. Instead a Texas singer/songwriter/poet sat in front of me and showed me what that was with just a few words and the simplest melodies, but so much was said.”

Crowell concurs, looking at the way Van Zandt’s aesthetic sense informed his own writing. “With Townes, the words and melody are just seamless—and together they create this really visceral sense of place. I love when songs evoke their subject matter so well, you’re there…

“And it’s not that you can take that, but it inspires you to want to emulate that immediacy, to access a deeper part of you. Looking at my own songs, I know that without Guy’s tutorial, I would’ve probably never written ‘’Til I Gain Control Again.’ I would’ve never reached that deep inside or tried to evoke so much of the poetry… and that’s what Townes brings out in people.”

“I’m more of a cheerful songwriter,” allows Potter, currently on the road with Brett Dennen. “But you hear a song like ‘Waiting Around To Die” and there’s such enormous despair, you’re consumed by it. Taken whole from a very few, very pure lines… and as a writer, who doesn’t want to do that? The way he does it so completely? Wow.

“And it sets a standard. Even his voice is poetry: The beauty is in the broken places! He always chose the perfect place, the perfect word to break… and he never overdid it. As a singer, that’s part of it, too: He knew his voice inside out, how to deliver his lines so he could deliver that pain and never let the emotion take over, but be so real because it’s true when he wrote it; you know that, but it doesn’t make it true every time you sing it. That’s the deeper poetry.”

Crowell, who can tell stories of Van Zandt’s inherent charisma and puckishness leading girls carnally astray while their boyfriends toiled in the studio below, recognizes that poetry is as much how you capture the song.

“That was the thing about Townes,” says the man who got Emmylou Harris to cut her seminal version of “Pancho & Lefty,” later a No. 1 country hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. “There was always an immediacy when he sang. It was always about the moment. To listen to Van Zandt’s records, it was like listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins: very live, very there, very much this electric moment that you could feel.

“Townes was a gunfighter. He had electric reflexes—and he knew. He was always the fastest draw, period. If you ended up out in the street with him, you’d be shot through the heart, dead. End of story. It made him dangerous, but then he was also such a sweet, sweet soul—and that enigmatic quality is part of what made him so compelling.”

That unexpected sweet side. A man in love with his morning glories. A man who was okay to drift from friend’s couch to friend’s couch—and who would immortalize a pair of parakeets (Loop and Lil, who agree) in “If I Needed You,” also a No. 1 country record for Emmylou Harris with Don Williams.

“I’ve got a picture of Townes and me and Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s long time harmonica player) from one of the early Farm Aids,” says Benson. “And he’s smiling this big smile. He’s just shining, and you can’t not look at him because that joy is all you can see.

“People talk about that dark side of him, but I never saw it. What I saw was pretty amazing, but it’s not what you ever hear mentioned.”

John Prine—who covered “Loretta,” the perfect barroom consort portrait on the triple Grammy-nominated TVZ tribute Poet—has noted, “The last thing you want to do when you’re having a good time is stop and write a song about it. No, you wanna keep having that good time.”

Artists as diverse as Mudhoney with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Norah Jones, Son Volt, Doc and Merle Watson, Evan Dando, Nana Mouskouri (in French, no less), Dashboard Confessional, Counting Crows, Glenn Yarbrough with the Jimmy Bowen Orchestra, Bob Dylan, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, Cowboy Junkies and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss have all embraced his singular sense of how a lean lyric stretches over the essence of melody, the naked intensity of emotions distilled to their purest forms.

“I hated it,” confesses the young Berlow. “I was maybe 11 or 12 and my dad was on this kick where all he’d play in the car was Emmylou’s “Pancho & Lefty.” Over and over and over. Then, when he stopped, I realized it had gotten inside me—and I missed it.

“The way he writes is more poetic than anybody… maybe even Dylan. But even more than the poetry, it’s how he makes you feel. You feel things listening to Townes in a way you don’t realize, but then suddenly you’re understanding things you don’t even have words for.

“Some of his songs—like ‘Rake’—are about partying and whatever, but then they get so sad. It’s the way everything comes undone, because it does. For people who’re sad—or even depressed—you can see those things in these songs, then see it in your life and understand it a little better. It’s that simple, but it’s also beyond the darkness, the idea that it passes.”

Crowell, who lived on the same lunatic fringe as one of the great poet/songwriters, doesn’t want to romanticize the pain without stressing the quixotic and quicksilver nature of TVZ’s spirit—and also the ravages of a life lived beyond the limit.

“He died on New Year’s Day, the same day Hank Williams died… in practically the same way,” says the man whose last four albums have been a song cycle, core sample and meditation on the state of the world in which we live. “Knowing Townes, wherever he is, I’m sure he’d say going out like that was his greatest success. That he managed to live and pass like someone who was a true poet consumed by their art, which was lived completely… well, what else would there be left to do?”

For Van Zandt, who recorded eight albums for Tomato—including one held hostage due to nonpayment of the studio bill—and another handful for Sugar Hill, there are the songs that burn even whiter, brighter and hotter than the man who wrote them. If his legacy is fueled in part by the legend, albums like Our Mother the Mountain, High, Low and In Between, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, At My Window and Deeper Blue offer fistfuls of greatness to witness what creation in its purest form can yield.

Those albums—and the many live recordings, which show the combustible nature of art on the edge—offer a strong case for what can be created if one is willing to be a relentless steward of what can be. The price of living that far from the shackles of expectation means a quicker fade, but as Crowell says, “If he’d lived and created any other way, we wouldn’t be talking about him right now. And it’s not the life, but what was created from the life… that’s what matters.”

Indeed. With nominal success in the commercial and financial success, 13 years after his passing, he remains the signifier of those who know the difference, those who’re willing to really go to the place where it all gets real. Or as the man himself was so fond of saying, “There are two kinds of music: the blues and zippity doo dah…”

Obviously, there was only one way for Van Zandt to go. Boy did he.


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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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