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Townes Van Zandt, for the Sake of a Song (and His Birthday)
Fifteen classics from one of our greatest writers, with help from Dylan and Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Steve Earle, and Nancy Griffith. Are you sure Hank done it this way?
Townes Van Zandt, born on this day in 1944, idolized Hank Williams but may have carried that a bit too far as they died on virtually the same date (Dec. 31 vs. Jan. 1). And where Hank at times had a sense of humor about his likely demise—e.g. “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”—Townes was, so to speak, deadly serious, as on “Waitin’ Around to Die,” prophetically, the first song he ever wrote.
Whatever the direct cause, he was, like Hank, a victim of hard living/drinking/drugging but at least he reached his early 50s. Like Hank, he has inspired tribute songs but only a few compared to Williams’ dozens.
Bob Dylan, in this 2022 book The Philosophy of Modern Song, profiled Townes’ most famous (though not best) song, “Pancho and Lefty”:
One way to measure a songwriter is to look at the singers who sing their songs. Townes van Zandt has had some of the best—Neil Young, John Prine, Norah Jones, Gillian Welch, Robert Plant, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris and hundreds of others. Another way to measure a songwriter is—are their songs still being sung? Townes’s are. Every night—in small clubs, in lonely bedrooms and wherever the brokenhearted watch the shadows grown long.
I never met Townes, but at my first gig, the legendary Zygote in NYC in 1970, we assigned John Swenson (later a kind of legend himself as a music writer in NOLA) to interview him between shows at the Bitter End folk club. Swenson showed up to find that not a single customer had arrived for the first show—though Townes had at least two well-regarded albums out by then—so they walked around the Village and chatted waiting for the second show.
I did meet Townes’ oldest son, J.T.—nice guy who looked like his dad—at a memorial show at (fittingly) a “poetry bar” off the Bowery. We were standing in line outside the grimy men’s room.
I could go on, but with a vacation beckoning, I’ll just leave you with a few Townes tunes, since many of you have probably not heard more than a couple of them to date. Enjoy (if that’s the right word) and then subscribe, it’s still free….
Lyle Lovett sang Townes’ haunting “Flyin’ Shoes” at his funeral.
Here’s Townes’ live version of “Pancho and Lefty.”
In his book, Dylan notes that hit covers of that song by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (and then a TV movie based on it) and others put enough money in Townes’ pocket to allow him to keep “poisoning” himself. Here Bob covers it live in a TV special with Willie.
Lyle and Townes’ pals and proteges, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, with “Lungs.” Steve once called Townes a greater songwriter than Dylan and then kind of took it back. He named one of his own sons after Townes, and the boy would grow up to be a fine writer himself. Steve recorded a Grammy-nominated Townes tribute album a few years ago.
One of my major (if even more obscure) favorites, “High, Low and In-Between”
Another happy ditty, “Nothin’.” Lucinda has a great cover, not on YouTube.
Townes “For the Sake of the Song.”
Guy Clark, another close friend and housemate, also sang at Townes’ funeral, joking (but not really) that like others he knew this day was coming soon: “I booked this gig long ago.” Here he covers “To Life Is to Fly.”
“Rake” would have been most writers’ best and most brutally honest song but it was just one of many for Townes.
But he sometimes found a lighter lovin’ mode. Norah Jones with “Be Here to Love Me.”
Townes’ with strings but still hauntingly himself: “Kathleen”
One of the greatest, if most depressing, songs ever—and maybe best one on homelessness—was “Marie.” In the recent movie Blaze about Townes’ pal Blaze Foley, Charlie Sexton (as Van Zandt) blows Blaze and the movie away with this song. Below here is Willie Nelson’s definitive version.
Townes often wrote about his time in a mental hospital as a teen, as here in “You Are Not Needed Now.”
Next to “Pancho and Lefty,” this might be his most covered song. Here he is joined by Nancy Griffith on “Tecumseh Valley.”
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