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Townes Van Zandt
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published February 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Townes Van Zandt
Watching him perform, it appears as if Townes Van Zandt carries the unwieldy weight of the tragic characters that populate his songs. His tall, lanky frame slouches under the seeming pressure of the lives he’s created and his voice nervously quivers, delivering stories as if there’s a hell hound on his trail. With the sly cunning of a novelist, he pens economical phrases rich with the pungent imagery of the South and the West and although he considers himself a folk artist, his songs harbor a country and Western affinity for desperadoes, outcasts, and victims whose lives went awry.

His name, which is the convenient hybrid of his parent’s union (the Townes’ and the Van Zandts) engenders the respect of songwriters and musicians who hold his stark verses as the measure of storytelling. No three minute ditties here, and although he has spun a few, the majority of his songs are full of timely wisdom and common circumstance, finding him lauded as a fiction writer as much as a song writer.

“I have tried to write novels in my time,” admits the aging songwriter in a recent conversation, his voice soft and deep. “But every time I start to get an idea about a story, the ideas come so fast that I can’t keep up with them unless I write them with a guitar,” he chuckles, “So what happens is the story goes away and the song is born. But you know,” he continues, “I have always respected the great writers; people like Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and others and the time and effort it takes to create a moving story. But, I think I’d have to go to a cabin in the woods and leave my guitar behind to try and do what they do.”

Van Zandt grew up on the dusty plains of southern Texas. It was there he first discovered the lure of the stage and the intoxication that comes from performing. “I used to travel with my daddy who was in the oil business and I’d listen to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on the car radio. But when I was about nine I saw Elvis and that did it for me,” he remembers, continuing, “I saw my sister and her friend’s reaction when he came on the Ed Sullivan show and I thought ‘Man, all these dudes playin’ guitars and the women are lovin’ it.’”

Convinced there was no finer life, Townes talked his father into buying a guitar, which he eventually did under the condition that his son learn his favorite song. “My daddy said I could have a guitar as long as I promised to learn “Fraulein.” You remember the song,” he sings, “Fraulein, fraulein, walk down by the river, tonight when those stars start to shine . . .”

Casting aside a familial career trend to study law, Van Zandt abandoned convention and took to the road with his guitar, pursuing a lifestyle that, at the time, promised little and provided less. “Back then,” he reminisces, “ You could pick up your guitar and travel to Oklahoma City or Denver and get an audition on Thursday and play for a $20.00 bill on Friday. You could pick out a living on the stage; not a good one, but a living just the same. Nowadays it’s different. You just retreat to a garage and record a good tape and send it off to the record company.”

Paying his dues the hard way, Van Zandt established himself as a wandering minstrel and, like Woody Guthrie or Jimmie Rogers before him, lived the hard, lonely life of the road. “Whenever people come up to me and ask me how to go about living this life I tell them, ‘Blow off your family, blow off your friends, blow off happiness, blow off everything except your guitar. Then, take that guitar and eat with it, sleep with it and realize that it’s your best friend,’ he offers, continuing, “A lot of people think it’s an easy life just playin’ guitar and traveling and, man, it just ain’t like that.”

Often without comfort, he gained the first-hand experience that later provided a backdrop for his most moving songs. Throughout his 25-year career, his songs have sought to bring attention to the dark side of life. Few do it as effectively. Witness “Tecumseh Valley,” a wrenching song about loss and circumstance, recently covered by Nanci Griffith, or the outlaw lives of “Pancho And Lefty” made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. “Marie” from his latest album, No Deeper Blue draws vivid depictions of poverty while painting a moving glimpse of homelessness with gritty realism, capturing the hopeless resignation of the wandering destitute. Recorded in Ireland, the new album finds him in top form, spinning tales of ramblers, gamblers, with an occasional peek at his sly, sardonic wit.

Despite an obvious affinity for tragedy, Van Zandt’s ability to tell stories remains his greatest gift and, as such, his songs live on the way great novels live on. Whether imparting universal truths or pointing to a recurring human tragedy, his songs are never sung without leaving a lasting impression.

“I went through a time when I was younger, coming up through the ranks, when songs were supposed to be these happy, uppy songs,” he confesses. “Well, mine were always these dark and lonesome songs, but, I realized that you just have to do what you have to do and you can’t change for the sake of the audience. It’s like Ricky Nelson said in his song, “Garden Party,” you remember,?” he asks, reciting in a long, slow Texas drawl varying in pitch and crackling with a raspy timbre, “‘Well, it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. Ya see you can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself.’ So I did.”

Chris Flisher

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