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Talkin' Townes Van Zandt

Despite years of commercial and self neglect, the songs are still coming through

Troubadour Townes Van Zandt carries the sort of reputation that invites hyperbole, and I'm only one among the many writers who have tripped over their tongues trying to put into words the wholly justifiable esteem with which a small but intensely loyal crowd of admirers regard his songwriting. Maybe it makes sense that the best summation of Van Zandt's talent comes from another esteemed Texas songwriter, Steve Earle. "Townes Van Zandt," Earle has been quoted as saying, "is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

Ballsy claim, but Van Zandt's fans have always talked that way about him, starting in the years when he and fellow traveler Guy Clark hitchhiked and road-tripped their way across the country, when they'd "hear there was a new joint opening in Oklahoma City, some coffee shop, we can audition on Wednesday and play on Friday for 20 bucks each." The fans talked through the early albums on the Tomato label and the subsequent move to Nashville, talking a little louder when first Emmylou Harris and later Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered Van Zandt's heroic "Pancho and Lefty," turning it into commercial gold. Van Zandt's fans talked about the man's half-manic, half-mystic life, the summer trips on horseback into the wilderness of Colorado to clear his head, the electricity-free Tennessee shack where he lived, the wealthy Fort Worth family comfort he'd left and the collection of unhealthy personal habits that lonely wanderers develop when they've wandered just a bit too far.

And the fact that so many people had so much to say about Townes Van Zandt was as good a tribute as any to the tricks the man's songs can play on your heart, especially since Van Zandt's "career" has been such that for much of it you'd have had a better chance of finding a pair of post hole diggers in your local record store than a copy of Van Zandt's latest. But sometimes if you get old enough, and if you're really as good as everybody seems to think you are, the neglect slowly turns to respect and small wrongs are eventually righted. That's what should be happening to Van Zandt as you read. He's got a new CD out called No Deeper Blue, recorded in Ireland with Irish players, that marks one more deeply illumined step in his struggle to give voice to road-weary revelations. Many of his older albums are presently being reissued on Rhino Records, making them widely available for the first time. He's also gotten in the habit of releasing live albums between studio efforts, the latest being Rear View Mirror, a stark guitar and violin set. There's also an unreleased three-CD boxed-set compilation of his work, old and new, re-recorded and ready to go on Rhino, though he says he thinks "they're gonna wait till I'm dead and then put it out, just so I won't give 'em any trouble, I guess. I have a good sense about that kind of stuff."

The flood of activity, he says, is more or less planned. "The reason was because I started to work independently, which I learned from Lightnin' Hopkins. You know, get the money up front or adios. I was with record companies until about eight years ago, but man if it doesn't come out of the shoots and sell, they put it on the shelf and write it off. Plus, my reputation is such that the bigger record companies aren't exactly chomping at the bit ...."

What he means by "reputation" could be one of several things. Could be the fact that "once you start in on that you have to be at meetings, they pick the producer, they pick the liner notes, they pick the cover, they pick the photographer, they tell you what to wear and where to play, and I just don't fit that profile."

Or it could be Van Zandt's legendary instability, which has been finely wrought into soul-ripping blues in his songs but also has translated more than a few times into missed gigs and stool-toppling ineptitude. Promoters still sometimes talk about Van Zandt the same resigned way they talk about George Jones or Jerry Lee Lewis: "Yeah, well, we'll see if he shows up...."

"There was a period there," he says, "and thankfully it's pretty much over, when I had a trio of wild friends of mine and it just got to the point where we weren't really in it for the music, we were in it for the good times, showing up half drunk and being goofy and stuff, but when it boils down to it, people pay a cover charge to hear a reasonable human sing the music. I still slip up occasionally, but it's mostly from exhaustion as opposed to, 'Hey, we got enough time to get drunk, pass out and sober up before the gig....'"

So the rowdiest of Van Zandt's days are behind him, though the fact that he just returned from a trek through Europe, where he logged 40 two-hour-plus sets in 45 days, suggests that he hasn't exactly settled into any ruts. And with his longtime wife Jeanene and road manager Harold Eggers handling most of the business chores, Van Zandt's able to safely concentrate on the only thing he's ever really been able to concentrate on anyway. "I'm just interested in getting to the sound check, having good strings and being in good shape and playing a good set for the folks. And writing songs. That's my part of the whole action. Let the business take care of itself."

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