Mickey Newbury paved the road from Houston to Nashville for a Hells Angels-ish, hard-drinking, hard-drugging gaggle of songwriters who, like Newbury, would go on to make a serious mark on Music City.
Ornery, belligerent, cocky, literary, opinionated and super-talented, this group of Houston transplants would turn staid old Nashville on its lyrical ear. They also set the bar for how to succeed in Nashville without selling your soul to the labels or the conservative machine that runs both the town and the industry.
Steve Young: Young's ties to Houston are minimal, but important nonetheless. He attended high school in Beaumont during a thriving period when people like the Big Bopper and George Jones also lived there, a time when Beaumont's Johnny Preston could have a huge national hit like "Running Bear Loves Little White Dove" and still live down the street.
Absorbing blues, folk, country and regional sounds, even in high school (Johnny Winter was in his graduating class), Young was already on his Zen-mystical musical and poetic journey, which would eventually find him in California at the forefront of country-rock with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Dillard and Clark.
But Young's biggest influence was in Nashville, ironically, where he had a brief major-label recording deal with RCA and contributed key anthems to artists like Waylon Jennings ("Lonesome, On'ry and Mean"), who was leading the charge for artists to take back artistic control of their recordings; this eventually evolved into the Outlaw Movement and went mainstream.
Young's two albums for RCA, Renegade Picker and No Place to Fall (the title track was a Townes Van Zandt composition), are collector's items, although Young has at times distanced himself from them for being "too country" and aimed too much at the commercial-country audience.
Although Young lived the solo troubadour lifestyle for years and traveled extensively, he didn't encounter the Van Zandt/Clark cabal of Houston writers until they arrived in Nashville, but he was featured alongside Clark, Crowell, Van Zandt and Steve Earle in the 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways, one of the earliest cinematic explorations of this new breed of songwriters who forged their own respected niche in Nashville. Young also has drawn considerable mailbox money with the Eagles' hit version of his "Seven Bridges Road."
Guy Clark: Born in Monahans, raised in Rockport, Guy Clark arrived in Houston at the height of the folk boom that made the Montrose one of the coolest music neighborhoods anywhere.
Clark fell in with Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rex Bell and others who had found a hot scene in a relatively friendly environment. Clark finally followed Newbury and Van Zandt up the trail to Nashville, where he landed a songwriting deal with RCA.
But it was Cosmic Cowboy Jerry Jeff Walker, who knew Clark from his days performing in Houston, who first brought Clark to the attention of the cognoscenti when he covered Clark's "L.A. Freeway" on the groundbreaking Austin record Jerry Jeff Walker, another bomb like Willie Nelson's Armadillo concert that went off and altered Austin's musical landscape forever in 1973. The album also contained Clark's subtle "Old Time Feelin'," and Walker would score again with Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting For a Train" on Viva Terlingua.
Bobby Bare's breakneck hillbilly take on Clark's clever "New Cut Road" took Clark into the Top 20 on the country chart, and Ricky Skaggs followed up quickly with Clark's "Heartbroke," which brought Clark his first No. 1 song and established his bona fides as a songcrafter of rare ability.
Clark has also had a steady recording career; his first two albums, Old No. 1 (1975) and Texas Cookin' (1976), are considered Americana classics. He suffered a bout with lymphoma a few years ago, but is still performing select gigs, like Tuesday's sold-out performance at the Old Quarter in Galveston.
Townes Van Zandt: "And Houston really ain't that bad a town/ So you hung around with the Fort Worth blues." Steve Earle's ode to Townes Van Zandt says all we need to know about Van Zandt and Houston: He loved it here. Born in Fort Worth, Van Zandt came to Houston in 1963 when his parents brought him home from the University of Colorado to be treated for manic depression. After his treatment, he enrolled in the University of Houston, but by 1965 he was playing regularly at The Jester, a local folk club where Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Lighnin' Hopkins and Doc Watson were regulars.
Mickey Newbury heard Van Zandt and suggested he come to Nashville. Newbury was instrumental in pairing Van Zandt with legendary Johnny Cash producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, who overproduced Van Zandt's first album in Nashville. Eric Taylor recalls sitting in the Family Hand Restaurant down on Bagby one afternoon when Townes pulled up and came in and asked, "Do y'all want to hear the record I just made?" It was 1968's For the Sake of the Song, Van Zandt's first recording.
Van Zandt didn't exactly take Nashville by storm, but he had his champions, including Newbury and Emmylou Harris, and people began to cut his songs. Harris and Don Williams had a hit with "If I Needed You," but it was the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard version of "Pancho and Lefty" that left the biggest Van Zandt mark on country music.
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Acknowledged as one of the true masters of songwriting, Van Zandt nevertheless never had a hit recording; in fact, he had few recordings that ever broke even. As his longtime cohort Wrecks Bell noted some years back, "I don't think Townes ever played a gig with more than 300 people, and his records didn't sell, so it's amazing the effect he had on songwriting and country music." Master songwriter Mark Germino noted that Van Zandt was the only person who approached Newbury's level of songwriting and respect among songwriters.
Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day 1997. The Old Quarter in Galveston hosts a wake in his honor every New Year's.