The Tower Son

Living up to his famous father is a tall order for J.T. Van Zandt, so now he stands in lonely indecision

And then he would hear the screen door slam and see his father walk out the door with another bottle of vodka and more questions that had no answers.

Where you've been is good and gone, all you keep is the gettin' there… -- "To Live's to Fly"

The two Van Zandts formed a friendship in Townes's final years.
The two Van Zandts formed a friendship in Townes's final years.
J.T. toddles off into an uncertain future while the author cools off.
J.T. toddles off into an uncertain future while the author cools off.

It's not easy being the son of a legend, especially not one as troubled as Townes was. "As a father he had a lot of unforgivable shortcomings that can't be excused by his music," J.T. says. "And I don't care. I'm not gonna make any excuses for him. It doesn't do me any good, because then I've gotta shoulder the burden of all my indecision and things that I deal with. So I give him full credit where he deserves it and I also give him full credit in a negative way too."

And he does sympathize with his father. He remembers waking up many a morning on that visit to find his father sitting on the edge of his bed, rocking back and forth, pulling at his hair, crying and saying "Fucking bitch!" aloud to nobody in particular. He wasn't talking about anybody either. That was just what he went through when he woke up every morning -- the way he viewed the world. It was the "Nothing" he sang about on an early album, "The Hole" he croaked about on his last one.

J.T. believes his father could have had a measure of contentment had he not given his life so completely to his art. Townes was something of a 19th-century mountain man born a century too late. Before his songwriting career took off, he loved to pack up a horse and ride off alone into the Colorado Rockies for weeks at a time.

"I think he had a real ambition to escape society," J.T. told interviewer Richard Skanse last year. "I really think that he would have loved to have lived unknown out on a ranch and had a happy family and all that sort of stuff up in the mountains somewhere." Nevertheless, he gave it up completely after the gigs started coming. Adios BB gun, hello guitar.

Like his father, J.T. is a nature lover. In fact, he makes his living these days as a fly-fishing guide/instructor on the Llano and Blanco Rivers. But he's still agonizing over that decision he thought he made on that awful trip to Nashville decades ago. His first public performance was at the Austin City Limits tribute to his father in 1997. Since then, he's recorded a track for the tribute album Poet and started playing "choice" gigs, only the ones he thinks will be fun. He plays guitar four hours a day (even during our interview) and says he's written a bunch of songs and thrown away almost all of them.

"A music career is in the front of my mind as much as if I were already a professional, I'm sure," he says. "I just don't know if I want to make all those sacrifices to be out there doing it. There's so much stuff I like to do. It seems like once you start rolling you don't stop. I think I'll give happiness a shot before I go out and try it."J.T. Van Zandt plays at the Wunsche Brothers Saloon Centennial Celebration, October 18-20, at the Wunsche Brothers Saloon, 103 Midway, Old Town Spring. Kimmie Rhodes and Darcie Deaville perform Friday, October 18; Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Verlon Thompson, Jeff Plankenhorn and Gurf Morlix perform Saturday, October 19, preceded by Hayes Carll and Lise Liddell's matinee; The Denns and Darcie Deaville perform another matinee Sunday, October 20. Call 281-350-1902 for more information.

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