Towering Townes

Fifteen years after the death of a legend, there are a few stories left untold.

In the 15 years since his death on New Year's Day in 1997, the now truly late and always great Townes Van Zandt is as extensively documented as any Texas musician has ever been. There's been a documentary film — Be Here to Love Me — and two biographies: John Kruth's To Live's to Fly (2007) and Robert Earl Hardy's A Deeper Blue (2008). There is Steve Earle's Grammy-winning 2009 tribute album Townes. Add to those the out-of-print songbook For the Sake of the Song and the documentary Heartworn Highways, both of which emerged in the troubadour's lifetime, and Van Zandt's discography, which has exploded exponentially since his death, and you can't help but wonder what's left to be said about the man that hasn't been said somewhere before.

Not a whole lot, but there are a few stories left untold, and a few points about his life that are worth repeating and emphasizing. Brian T. Atkinson's new book I'll Be Here in the Morning is proof-positive of that. Whereas the Hardy and Kruth books are linear accounts of Van Zandt's life, Atkinson is more of an appreciatory assessment of Van Zandt's work, as belied by the book's subtitle: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. Atkinson also takes more of a Studs Terkel approach, allowing his 41 musical interviewees to speak, often at great length, about what Townes's songs and life meant to them.

Atkinson says the book has been nine years in the making. "I always intended it to be an oral biography," he says over the phone from his home in Austin, where he lives and works as a freelance writer. "I didn't necessarily intend from the beginning for it to be about his songwriting legacy, but it evolved into that along the way because that was better than focusing on the more fucked-up aspects of his life. I wanted to put as little of my own editorializing in it as possible and get as much as I could straight from the source."

Townes and me, Nashville, 1992: When he wasn't teasing me, he tended to get bored.
Courtesy of John Nova Lomax
Townes and me, Nashville, 1992: When he wasn't teasing me, he tended to get bored.
Cindy and Townes stand to the right of my mother, Bidy Lomax, at a hot-air balloon expo near Van Zandt's Tennessee cabin, circa 1978.
Photo courtesy of John Nova Lomax
Cindy and Townes stand to the right of my mother, Bidy Lomax, at a hot-air balloon expo near Van Zandt's Tennessee cabin, circa 1978.

Location Info


Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe

413 20th
Galveston, TX 77550

Category: Music Venues

Region: Galveston


The 15th Anniversary Townes Van Zandt

Sunday, January 1, at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th Street, Galveston, 409-762-9199 or

There are a few you'd expect to find in here: Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, James McMurtry, David Olney, Lucinda Williams and Billy Joe Shaver, to name a few, and a few surprises — most notably, Jim James of My Morning Jacket. (Also surprising: Steve Earle is not included in the book. Atkinson says he wanted him in there but they never could get their timing down for the interview.)

In the book, Guy Clark retells the tale that he believed was the key to understanding Van Zandt's psyche. Townes told Clark he had a philosophical epiphany in the third grade when his teacher told him that the sun and all the stars would burn out some day. "It froze in his mind," Clark remembers. "He said, 'You telling me the sun's burning out? Are you serious? The fucking sun's burning out? Why do I have to be here on time and shine my shoes, comb my hair, and sit up straight?' He said from that moment on he lived his life like that."

In Kevin Russell's chapter, the Gourds front man says, correctly, that Van Zandt's finest album is Live at the Old Quarter — as it captures Van Zandt at the peak of his vocal and instrumental powers and is utterly shorn of schmaltz. Russell then goes a little too far when he says it's the only Townes you'll ever need. Yes, the old studio albums were overproduced, but there are quite a few great songs on them nonetheless, many of which are not on the Old Quarter album: "Sad Cinderella," "Colorado Girl," "Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria," to name but three he recorded before the Old Quarter taping, and gems like "Flyin' Shoes," "Snowin' on Raton" and "Marie" that came later. All of that said, if you've never listened to Old Quarter, you've cheated yourself of a chance to truly appreciate Townes. And that goes double if you've been suckered into buying one of the many, almost always ghoulish, posthumous live albums.

Atkinson's book is prefaced with a 2003 scene from the annual New Year's Day Townes wake at old running buddy Wrecks Bell's Galveston reincarnation of Houston's Old Quarter. He relates seeing Hayes Carll for the first time, as the lanky, sleepy-eyed Townes acolyte stepped out from behind the bar to wail "Greensboro Woman" and "Loretta."

Carll may or may not be there again in 2012, at Bell's 15th annual wake. But the scene will be much as he described it to Atkinson in the book: "You have this collection of people that could not be more different, everything from suburbanite Yuppie kids who are aspiring singer-songwriters to old prostitutes who were friends with Townes to old drug addicts who knew him in the day to legitimate, successful singer-songwriters to accountants from North Dakota, but it's this collection of people who are there for one reason and from all walks of life."

Atkinson says he will be there, so pick up a copy of his book and get it signed. And in the meantime, here are a few stories we collected to whet your whistle.

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Thanks for this.

(Copy editor: whet your appetite; wet your whistle.)


I was at the Old Quarter one night in 1974, when Townes and Rocky Hill were in there getting high upstairs. The police came up outside, and Townes and Rocky left quickly out the back. My girlfriend and I walked out the front door into a cloud of tear gas or whatever the cops were using to subdue a drunk on the sidewalk. I remember also Townes introducing Mickey White as "Egg" White, since he'd only been laid once!


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Anybody know/remember where the Old Quarter was?

Before my time and just curious...Google's not too helpful on this.

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Thanks for sharing the memory of Townes' "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" lyrics revelation. Only a true poet/word smith would catch that or find its alternative interpretation. It's deep and sweet!


It was on the corner of Congress & Austin. Last time I checked, the building was still there--as a law office. It shows up on one of those 19th century "aerial views" of Houston.

Then, there's the Old Quarter in Galveston. http://www.oldquarteracousticc... (Hi, Wrecks!)

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