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."
The best part of that formula is that unlike the aforementioned Dylan, Van Zandt's still finding the songs. He sings them now in a trembling croak that's lost most of its boyish edge and taken on the vocal age lines that make a voice sound like heavy wood, like Johnny Cash. And he still zings out seemingly straightforward lyrics that can tangle the weight of the world around your neck and leave you at the end feeling like dying, but by the time you've listened all the way through, you already know too much to kill yourself. No Deeper Blue's lead cut, "A Song For," delivers a verse: "There's nowhere left in this world to go / my arms, my legs they're a tremblin' / thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky, not even worth the remembrin' / now as I stumble and reel to my bed / all that I've done and all that I've said / means nothin' to me, I'd as soon be dead, and all of this world be forgotten."
"Yeah, I do have some that are genuinely out there," he admits. "The blues is happy music anyway, but some of them are just like, Gawd... wow... if that guy takes that serious he must be in deep, deep trouble." And if deep, deep trouble is not a place Van Zandt lives year-round, it's a place he's intimately familiar with. "I been took down many a road, anybody says I ain't they lie," he sings in "Turnstyled, Junkpiled," and it's all part of a way of life he says he chose at 23. "There's a bunch of craftsmanship and an attitude if you're really gonna do it, you have to learn the craftsmanship and stick with the attitude. You kinda have to give up everything. You have to give up money, security, happiness, your family -- you give up everything to get one song down. You give up everything but your guitar. A lot of people don't want to do that, and I don't blame them."
Van Zandt himself played his first money gig for ten bucks at the Jester on Westheimer. "It was the end of the folk boom, you know. I'd already been hearing Lightnin' Hopkins up through high school and learned a big step forward on the guitar, stopped strumming and started playing notes. And then Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, a whole bunch of people, realized that man, you can write serious songs if you want to. Songs that might make a difference to somebody somewhere. And then it clicked in. At that point I quit college and decided that if I can make little sacrifices, which I kinda already had anyway, then I think I could do this."
He did, and even on the most Nashville-ian of Van Zandt's Nashville albums, with strings and too-lush arrangements sapping up the songs in a futile attempt to balance their weight with fluff, you can hear the song beneath the sugar, the one he plays live, with just his words and an acoustic guitar. He's averagely prolific, and some of the songs he works hard for. Others are what he calls "sky songs," keeping alive a phrase coined by Delta bluesman Bukka White.
"It just comes from the air. I think it depends on what chair you're sitting in. And it also depends on being aware of when it happens. I've been doing this for so long that I'm aware when I hear a song in the air. They just come from the air and hit you on top of the head and come out through your right hand. It happens a lot when you're driving or sitting or reading a book, or when you're just plunking around on a guitar. I'm sure they happen to plumbers and whoever else, but they're just not geared to hear it that way, or to grab a guitar or to remember the melody. Doing what I do, I'm kinda geared for it."
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"Niles River Blues" on No Deeper Blue is a sky song Van Zandt's played twice, once in a studio in Limerick, Ireland. He says he's going to try to learn it by the time he gets to Houston, much like a man who's been given something but hasn't had time to really look it over yet.
It's a deeply romantic view of songwriting, of the song as something that passes through the singer, but for all of Van Zandt's rustic romanticism, he doesn't seem to have romanticized himself. He copes with his deification at the hands of a generation of songwriters by resorting to Roger Miller's dictum that "flattery is okay if you hold your breath while it's going on." And if you steer too close to magical-mysteries-of-songwriting babble, he'll pull you back.
"I've heard little Eskimo kids sitting together singing a song, you know? And the looks on their faces and the clapping of their hands, you know, good as anything I ever wrote. It's different, of course, and they don't have to travel 20,000 miles to do it, and they don't get paid for it, and they don't have guitars, but it's just as good. Comes from the heart."
Townes Van Zandt plays Wednesday, January 25 at Rockefeller's. Tickets cost $10 and $12.50 Call 869-8427 for info.