Acoustic Spotlight

Townes Van Zandt

by Gary Knighting

In 1989, Townes Van Zandt recorded an album which was released under the title The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Between sets at a concert a few years later, I asked him on behalf of Townes admirers everywhere never to scare us like that again. He smiled a little and said, "Yeah, well, my mother wasn't too pleased about it either, but it's surely gonna happen sooner or later." He opened his next set with "the first serious song I ever wrote," a mournful tune called "Waitin' Around to Die."

Townes passed away on New Year's Day of this year. He died of a massive heart attack while recovering from hip surgery at his home in Tennessee. He was 52.

Son of one of Texas' Founding Families (Van Zandt County in west Texas and Townes Hall at the University of Texas at Austin are named after his ancestors), Townes began his professional music career in 1960 when he moved to Houston to try to make a living writing and performing. The first few years were pretty lean, until producer Jack Clement heard Townes perform and signed him to record an album. First Album (aka For the Sake Of the Song) didn't sell particularly well, but it attracted a lot of favorable comments from the critics. Townes' reputation spread beyond Texas, creating an instant demand for his next album, Our Mother the Mountain.

During the next three decades,Townes released a dozen albums, including two live collections Live At the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, and Live and Obscure. It is on these albums where his genius as a performer, the exquisite craftsmanship of his songs, and his slightly warped sense of humor show themselves to best advantage. Most of the songs he recorded were his own, and the admiration these songs inspired in other well-known songwriters and singers, including Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Michael Timmins, is ample testimony to his talent and ability. up Road Songs, an album made up entirely of covers, is Townes' own salute to some of his favorite composers, including Lightnin' Hopkins and Bruce Springsteen.

In spite of his genius, or perhaps because of it, Townes was driven by demons he could never seem to escape. He drank heavily, and was chronically depressed. The brighter his creative fire burned, the longer and blacker were the shadows it cast over him. Through it all, the words and music came tumbling out, always clearer and cleaner than ever. The two most recent CDs, At My Window and No Deeper Blue, contain some of his best work, which makes it all the harder to wait for the new live CD, Hiway Kind, due out from Sugar Hill in a couple of months. Sugar Hill has also just reissued one of his lesser known albums, Rear View Mirror, on CD. Shortly before his death, Townes completed the vocal and guitar work for a 4 CD compilation of his songs, Newology, which will include duets with such artists as Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris, Guy Clark, and Nanci Griffith. It's scheduled for release in October.

Townes had the reputation of being ornery when he was drinking. I met him twice. Both times he was sober and I found him to be friendly and personable, with a fundamental sweetness and courtesy that made him a pleasure to be around. The first time we met I was nervous – he'd been one of my icons for nearly a quarter of a century – and I apologized, saying I'd never stood that close before to someone who was the best in the world at what he did. Townes waved his hand impatiently and said, "Don't say stuff like that. Even if it was true, man, that'd be an awful hard thing to live up to."

Well, Townes, you were the best I ever heard. Rest in peace. You'll be missed.

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