Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was a singer-songwriter whose work was popularized by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett, among many others. Some of his tunes (“Pancho and Lefty,” “For the Sake of the Song,” “To Live is to Fly”) are masterpieces of songwriting craft. Outside of a period of relative stability in Nashville, however, his life was troubled, marred by alcohol and heroin addiction, divorces, bad management, and his own choice to live off the grid. We offer this reflection for Townes Van Zandt’s birthday (March 7), with a little help from his biographer, John Kruth.
When I was 16, a driver’s license and a dishwashing job freed me from being permanently stuck in the Atlanta suburbs, allowing me to sneak into the city’s clubs to see some of the musical artists I’d heard on the hip FM radio station out of Emory University.
On these forays into the city, I willed myself to look older than my years, standing as unobtrusively as possible at the back of the room, out of sight, out of mind. One of these clubs, the 12th Gate Coffee House, was an “all-ages” venue long before that term was coined, located at 10th and Spring streets. Housed in a former Methodist Church just off the main drag of Peachtree Street, it was a magnet for hippies and runaways. They didn’t sell booze, that I know of, but they probably didn’t need to since everyone was stoned before they arrived. It was a tiny—one could say “intimate”—room but somehow full (loud) bands would play there, including the Hampton Grease Band (my favorite), Stump Brothers (an offshoot of the HGB), Little Feat, even Weather Report and McCoy Tyner.
One of my more memorable forays to the 12th Gate was to see Townes Van Zandt, the pencil-thin, Stetson-wearing folksinger whose debut album, For the Sake of the Song (1968), had caught my ear, inspiring me to part with some of my dishwasher’s wages to purchase. Not only did the mournful, almost excessively depressing songs (e.g., “Waitin’ Around to Die” and “Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls”) appeal to my temperament—I was a melancholy youth—the clear, clean fingerpicking guitar style and stark, unsubtle vocals were riveting.
Townes Van Zandt did not disappoint in person. I thought I’d met some real down-and-outers working at the steakhouse in Decatur but he seemed like the saddest man in creation. Each song was more depressing than the previous one, almost comically so. In fact, Van Zandt seemed to sense this, and tried to lighten the mood with dirty jokes and “talking blues” songs so un-p.c. that they couldn’t be performed today. At one point, he even made a sort of desperate plea to the audience of maybe 50 people (12th Gate was tiny) for a place to sleep that night. I thought at first it was his further attempt at humor, but he was serious. He really had nowhere to go after the show. I briefly flirted with the fantasy of bringing him home with me to the suburbs, putting him up in the room vacated by my older brother, the hippie college student. Then I thought about what my father, a heavy-drinking retired Army colonel, would say the next morning (my mother, God bless her, would have been fine with it). But I was too young, shy and scared to act on my impulses.
Flash forward five or six years. I’m living in a dilapidated farmhouse a few miles outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, during the directionless year following my graduation from UNC with a useless bachelor’s degree in English literature. My career seemed set: still washing dishes, this time at a popular college restaurant/bar on Franklin Street, and sharing a dilapidated farmhouse with some friends. I’m driving home one night after work and notice a hand-printed sign outside a tavern not far from the farmhouse where I lived: “Tonight: Townes Van Zandt”. Huh?
By this time, I had a acquired a number of other TVZ albums, including The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972) and High, Low and In Between (1971), wearing out the grooves of both. When I got home, I gave my girlfriend a quick and dirty tutorial on Townes in my attempt to entice her to walk down the road with me to hear him perform. “Pancho and Lefty”—the song later made famous by Willie Nelson—did the trick and we made the pilgrimage. I kept thinking, “This can’t be real. What’s he doing playing in this dingy dive out here in the middle of nowhere?”
Sure enough, it was that same guy, looking just as lanky and forlorn and only slightly older (the alcohol and heroin had a preservative effect on him, apparently), performing virtually the same set, including those stark earlier songs I had heard as a teenager, same dirty jokes and talking blues numbers. One got the impression that the world had changed but Townes Van Zandt had remained in the same space.
He was born in Texas and would return to the Lone Star State during his most fruitful and prolific years of writing, performing and recording. But he was to the wanderlust born, so to speak, as his family moved frequently throughout his childhood—to Montana, then Colorado, then Minnesota and, finally, back to Texas. It was in Houston that, after two failed attempts at college, he began to frequent the coffee houses and clubs in 1965. There, he met Lightnin’ Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Doc Watson, all of whom would have profound influence on his playing, singing and songwriting. He roomed, for a spell, with Roky Erickson, who tried to convince him to join the 13th Floor Elevators as the bass player. Fellow songwriter Mickey Newbury, sensing the raw talent that Van Zandt possessed, took him to Nashville to make his first recordings, produced there by Jack Clement, who’d go on to produce some of the later albums.
Most of the income that Townes Van Zandt made as a musician, from this point on, came as royalties from other performers who recorded his songs and, in some cases, turned them into hit records—Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle (who named his son Justin Townes Earle, to honor Van Zandt), Gillian Welch. Guy Clark, the Cowboy Junkies, and many others of varying renown. Even Bob Dylan occasionally covered “Pancho and Lefty” in concert.
There was something haunting and haunted about Townes Van Zandt, the man and his music. It was as if he were playing a part in sad movie of his own life. The ending was fairly predictable—death at 52, while going through delirium tremens, a bottle of booze within arm’s reach, his body weakened by decades of substance abuse. These were the highs and the lows.
But what about the “in betweens”?
We turned to John Kruth, author of To Live’s To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (2007) and a frequent contributor to PKM.
PKM: Townes Van Zandt had an itinerant life, not just as a musician but from his childhood, with his father moving the family constantly all over the West, from Texas to Montana to Colorado and back to Texas.
John Kruth: His parents also sent Townes off to private school in Minnesota.
PKM: What was his boyhood home like. Was there mental illness or drinking? Or was it a happy childhood?
John Kruth: The mental illness was a component. He was of that generation when a bunch of talented kids were institutionalized by their parents for smoking pot or being outrageous or being gay, or whatever it was. And some of those kids were so unfortunate that they got zapped in the head with electrodes.
PKM: Did that happen to Townes?
John Kruth: Absolutely. It’s in the book. He got zapped. Any of those guys with those really black eyes…were the ones who’d been zapped with electrodes. Lou Reed was one of them.
PKM: Right. He even wrote songs about it, like ‘Kill Your Sons’ off of the Sally Can’t Dance album.
John Kruth: Townes was definitely part of that generation of kids. If they got a girl pregnant or were caught smoking weed or thought they were gay, their parents were sold this whole idea that that was going to straighten the kid out. It is a tragedy. It’s amazing to me when I think about what that generation was and how it was derailed between stuff like this and the Vietnam War. It strikes me all the time. The potential that they had versus what became of them.
PKM: Let’s talk about Townes Van Zandt’s music, about that period of time in the 1960s when he got unzapped, so to speak, and went down to the clubs in Houston with his guitar.
John Kruth: I don’t think he ever got unzapped. I’m serious. I think he was forever challenged after that experience. I don’t know what the relationship with his mother was, only Freud could answer that one…
PKM: What was the scene like in Houston when he started going out and playing?
John Kruth: The Old Quarter [opened by Rex Bell and Cecil Clayton, at Congress and Austin streets] was everything. It was the Folk City of Houston. Think about those years 1963. 1964, 1965, and about being a young sensitive man who was into poetry…because Townes was deep into poetry. Two of the things that drew me to Townes in the first place were, first, he was into a lot of the poetry that I loved, like Shelley and Frost—you know, he had that prep school English literature background. The other key element for me was that he dug the blues and wanted to learn to play guitar like Lightnin’ Hopkins. He went right to the man himself, taking guitar lessons from Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Here’s the cocktail of Townes Van Zandt: One part Lightnin’ Hopkins; one part Shelley and Frost; one part Hank Williams and, on top of that, one part Bob Dylan. And then for him to be able to find a place like the Old Quarter. Every little place had its pocket, whether it was Dinkytown in Minneapolis for Bob Dylan, and the Old Quarter in Houston for Townes, which Rex Bell ran. And Rex was bringing in artists at a time when folk albums were selling like crazy.
PKM: Who were some of the other musicians who played there around that same time?
John Kruth: Guy Clark and the local Texas guys.
PKM: And Lightnin’ Hopkins?
John Kruth: The Black artists weren’t there at first. ZZ Top came out of that club, though. Rex told me about how Dusty Hill was playing bass with Lightnin’ Hopkins and there was another band called American Blues with his brother, Rusty Hill, who was apparently crazier than Townes because he had a reputation for being violent. He was the guitar player, a really good blues player. But he got in a lot of trouble and then American Blues got kicked out of their rehearsal space for not paying the rent. And they wound up sleeping on the floor of the Old Quarter. Billy Gibbons shows up there looking for a rhythm section and that’s when he and Dusty Hill met. And they rehearsed there at the Old Quarter. ZZ Top was born.
PKM: Mickey Newbury played there too.
John Kruth: Yes, but he wasn’t from Houston, I don’t think. I did one of the last interviews with Mickey. He was such a great guy, because I have to tell you that some of the people in Townes Van Zandt’s world were not nice people, not cool people. They were alcoholic, and drug people, and back stabbers.
What was coming out of the Old Quarter early on were people doing imitations of old traditional folk songs like the kind Joan Baez was first singing before she sang Dylan songs. That was the thing, that and cowboy songs.
PKM: What was it that struck you, personally, when you first heard Townes Van Zandt’s music. You never met him, or saw him play, did you?
John Kruth: I heard the records and I kept thinking I’d see him play eventually because I played so many of the same venues that he played. I would hear stories….’Townes was here last week and he pissed in somebody’s fireplace and…’ It was always a drunken adventure. After a while you’re laughing out of both sides of your mouth because it’s funny, but it’s not. It became a sad thing.
The first thing I ever heard by Townes Van Zandt was “Our Mother The Mountain.” It scared the absolute bejesus out of me. This was like Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
PKM: Townes sort of looked like Tony Perkins.
John Kruth: He looked a lot like him and in the book I make that comparison. This is the most riveting around-the-campfire type song I’d ever heard. That album had “Kathleen” on it, too. “Kathleen” was like Edgar Allan Poe with a guitar.
Even at a young age I had this idea that Bob Dylan was a bard, a guy who was singing poetry, really. And then I heard Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt. Same thing. I thought ‘this is what I want to do, this is the tradition I want to be part of.’
PKM: The thing that struck me when I first heard Townes was the immaculate finger-picking guitar style. It was so beautiful and clear. Where did he get that?
John Kruth: Lightnin’ Hopkins. Absolutely.
PKM: You’re a guitar player, among other instruments, so I will just say that style of playing seems, from my perspective as a listener, really hard to do and especially when you’re in these varying states of drug intake and alcohol inebriation. How was he able to do that?
John Kruth: We can’t figure that one out because there’s Charlie Parker. What we did figure out is that drugs don’t make you play better. It’s almost a separate component, they operate separate from each other, the playing and the drugging. I can’t answer that one, oddly enough, after 50 years of doing it. It’s partly muscle memory, and it becomes this ingrained thing, playing the way Townes played.
I do want to point out that it was Joan Baez who was teaching everybody on the folk scene how to finger pick. I think she even taught Bob. She was the first to finger pick in that super clean style. And she got it from Debbie Green. She’s the one who taught Joan Baez most of her early repertoire for which she became famous. Debbie was Joan’s roommate at BU. Debbie Green’s story is one of the great unsung stories of music.
I would say Lightnin’ Hopkins was probably the main influence on Townes’s playing style. He was a really great finger picking guitarist. And don’t forget Mance Lipscomb, another major influence on Townes and on that Houston scene.
PKM: Townes seemed to do nothing but tour or go off the grid. But was there ever a time in his life when he achieved some sort of stability?
John Kruth: Do you know At My Window, that album? Arguably one of his top two albums. You’ve got to listen to that album. It is my go-to record of his. It was released in 1987 and the songs were written and recorded during the time he moved to Nashville and had a few years of stability when he married Jeanene and they had a couple of kids together. Townes had a pocket of a couple of year of some kind of stability. He started getting money from “Pancho and Lefty”. Willie and Bob were both doing it. That was the big paycheck.
PKM: That song was a hit twice, once by Emmylou Harris and once by Willie Nelson.
John Kruth: And Merle Haggard. Willie recorded it with Merle. Townes was able to buy the house in Nashville with the royalties from that song. A great house. I have been there. Jeanene calls it the Ponderosa and still lives there. He had a couple of years of being a local celebrity, part of the Nashville scene, and he didn’t have to tour. He could stay in Nashville and get high with his buddies.
And Jack Clement. I can’t leave him out of the story. Cowboy Jack Clement was producing Townes’s records in Nashville. Cowboy Jack is a whole story unto itself. He was one of the most incredible people. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to meet Cowboy Jack, because he was the number two guy at Sun Records. He took on Jerry Lee Lewis after Sam Phillips passed on him. Cowboy Jack produced Jerry Lee Lewis. He also produced the first Townes Van Zandt record, For the Sake of the Song. Nobody knew what to do with it because it was country but not country, it was folk but not folk, and it was also this very literate kind of thing…Townes didn’t fit in any spot.
PKM: Kevin Eggers owned the label, Tomato, that released Townes’ albums, right?
John Kruth: I don’t know if he knew anything about producing records but he tried to do that too. He was more like a Kit Lambert or Andrew Oldham. He was a scenester guy who lived in the Chelsea Hotel and who got into a lot of trouble in his life…that’s just another story.
Townes was a junkie and he was selling Eggers the publishing rights on his songs for whatever he could get so that he could go out and get a fix.
Guy Clark told me that Townes’s attitude was ‘these songs are bullet proof’. You know. ‘I’m going to walk in there and record them and if you need me I’ll be in the bar’. Townes often just recorded with himself and his guitar and no embellishments. And he just left the tapes with Eggers, who then did these ridiculous rococo arrangements. He got other people to do them. He dressed these songs up with whatever arrangement to make them commercial.
This is what happened with folk music. It can be summed up perfectly with Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now.” Or [Dion’s] “Abraham, Martin and John”. If you put enough strings on it, and it had an acoustic guitar, it could get on AM radio. That became an aesthetic that Eggers tried to follow because he knew that this music had no commercial potential unless he dressed it up in strings.
PKM: Which of the albums that came out during Townes’s lifetime, besides At My Window, would you recommend to a newbie, as essential?
John Kruth: Our Mother the Mountain. But the absolute Rosetta Stone is Live at the Old Quarter. That’s the bulk of his portfolio, right then, recorded live without an air conditioner on a hot night in Houston in 1973. It doesn’t get much better than that. His singing is spot on, his fingerpicking is spot on, the songs are perfect.
The two studio albums that I go back and listen to that don’t drive me up the wall, because some of them really do, are Our Mother the Mountain and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. Both of those records are great. And let me be fair about “The Silver Ships of Andilar” [a song on The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt]. The string section works on that song, the strings were made for a song like that.
I can hardly listen to the first record, For the Sake of the Song. The songs are great, but…
PKM: Still, to my 15-year-old ears at that time, when they played it on the hip radio station at Emory University, I didn’t know about all the embellishments. I mean, I agree with Townes’s assessment of his own music…’the songs are bulletproof’. To my ears, they were something special and different. Among the long psychedelic jam-style album tracks, the hippie deejay would pop on a 3-minute song by Townes Van Zandt off that album and it just stood out…you’d go, ‘What did I just hear?’
John Kruth: Absolutely. For me, there’s Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohan and Townes and Richard Thompson at his height and maybe Neil Young at his height and Joni Mitchell, of course, as far as just being the perfect marriage of melody and lyric, singing poetry.
PKM: Have you thought about reissuing your biography of Townes Van Zandt?
John Kruth: It’s not up to me. I don’t own it. It’s Da Capo, which was a huge heartache. I won the Deems Taylor award with that book, and was at the ceremony at Lincoln Center, with Oliver Sacks seated on my right and Mr. Rogers’ wife on my left. I even got to sing a song by Townes Van Zandt, “Still Looking for You.” That’s one of his greatest ever. It’s from At My Window. If you haven’t heard that album, I’m really jealous!
PKM: Let’s back up for a sec. You sat next to Oliver Sacks?! He’s one of my heroes, truly.
John Kruth: Let me tell you what happened. I’m out of my head because I’m sitting next to Oliver Sacks, we’re getting an award together. I turn to him and say, “I have to tell you that your book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a game changer in my perception. That book was just so brilliant” and then I started going into different things. He is a very shy man. He was bearing it for a while, that I was gushing, but he finally just said, “Thank you very much, honestly thanks” and he just kind of sat there and clammed.
PKM: I’m not surprised to hear that. He had these weird tics and neurological disorders of his own, which is probably why he could relate so well to his patients, who suffered from all manner of afflictions and hallucinations and severe behavioral tics. He writes about this in On the Move, his memoir, which might be the equal of his earlier classics like Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars and the rest. He talks a lot about his awkwardness around people he doesn’t know and all the neurological problems he was dealing with. For example, he had this thing where he couldn’t recognize faces.
John Kruth: I could see that he was terribly uncomfortable so I just let him be. I realized he couldn’t function on this level, so I turned to Mrs. Rogers and was chatting with her for a while. She was so sweet. But Da Capo never did anything for the book, never put a mention of that award on the website, never put a sticker on the book saying it won the Deems Taylor award. I could be getting that book published in so many languages…German and Dutch and Italian to start. Townes Van Zandt was loved in those countries.