Austin author taps songwriters who admire Van Zandt
The late, great Townes Van Zandt exerted an influence on songwriters that far outstripped his relatively brief life. Though born to an affluent Texas dynasty, Van Zandt spent the lion's share of his 53 years living the hardscrabble life of an itinerant troubadour. "I don't envision a very long life for myself," he told a documentary filmmaker. "I think my life will run out before my work does. I've designed it that way."
And so it did; Van Zandt died on New Year's Day in 1997. But in his time, Van Zandt created a catalog of indelible songs, including "Pancho and Lefty," "To Live's To Fly," "If I Needed You," "For the Sake of the Song" and many more. Though he never had a hit himself, his songs have been covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Norah Jones, the Cowboy Junkies, Toby Keith, Emmylou Harris and a host of others. In the process, he became the standard-bearer for at least two generations of Texas singer-songwriters.
In his new book, "I'll Be Here In the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt" ($24.95, Texas A&M University Press), Austin journalist Brian T. Atkinson has compiled an oral history of Van Zandt's life, work and ongoing influence by talking to peers who knew him intimately, including Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett and Billy Joe Shaver, as well as younger musicians touched by his work, among them My Morning Jacket's Jim James, rocker Grace Potter and the Avett Brothers' Scott Avett.
Atkinson, who writes frequently for the Statesman and has contributed to American Songwriter, No Depression and Paste, recently sat down at a South Austin coffeehouse to talk about the book, Van Zandt's legacy and his own personal journey through Townes' music.
American-Statesman: A book is a lot of work. Townes is not necessarily a household name, even in Texas. Why did you choose to write about him?
Atkinson: Exactly for that reason. When I started this project in 2003, it seemed like literally nobody knew who he was. His music changed so many things for me that it became a personal thing. I wanted to get the word out there.
What was the inspiration for the format?
The idea came to me on Jan. 1, 2003, when I was down at The Old Quarter in Galveston at the sixth annual Townes Van Zandt wake. That night I thought, I've got to put together a Townes book. The idea of doing an oral biography came from listening as everybody got up and told a Townes story. And they were great stories. And I thought, if I could get all this...
Townes has been dealt with in two books and a couple of documentary films. What fresh perspective did you want to bring?
I wanted to focus on the songwriting. The oral history idea was always there. There's so much to say about Townes and so many ways to say it that I wanted the people who knew Townes or were impacted by him to tell their side of the story.
Did you ever see him play?
No. I discovered him in January of 1997. I later learned that was right after he died.
How did his music change you?
Music never sounded the same to me since I discovered him. Since then, it's been everybody else and Townes. Even people like Guy Clark and Paul Simon and other personal favorites who are the pinnacle of songwriting to me — Townes is way above. He's something else.
Do you have a favorite Van Zandt song?
Man, that's tougher than picking a favorite Beatles song. I guess I'd have to say "Tecumseh Valley." That song's such an incredible and heartbreaking short story so cleanly written, a perfect example of why I think many of Townes songs should be considered literature. It's unbelievable that he wrote that in his early 20s.
In his chapter, Jim James says 'Townes hits you when you're ready.' When were you ready?
For me, it was when I was in grad school in Iowa City. I was the journalism grad student running around with all these poets and artists, and I think they sort of looked at me as a guy learning to take quotes while they were writing the Great American Novel. I just happened across Townes when a friend gave me Steve Earle's "Train A-Comin'" and I found "Tecumseh Valley." It gave me something to bring to the table with the poets and the budding novelists — I'd be like, listen to THIS. If I couldn't impress them with my writing, I could impress them by what I knew.
Did your perceptions going in change when you came out of the project?
It just reinforced, I suppose. He's still my favorite songwriter. He's the only one who, if I'm making an iTunes mix, I can't include with other people. He just has to be listened to for me, all together. I can listen to other people do his songs, but in the end, it has to be Townes.
The interview list is eclectic, but there are some names you might expect who are missing, including the likes of Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and even his son, J.T. Van Zandt. How did you end up with your final cast?
They said yes. There were a bunch of people I tried to talk to that I didn't get. I don't mean to single anybody out, but I have file folders full of requests, and it's all decline, decline, decline.
A Townes book without Steve Earle? Everybody's gonna call me out on this. But I had a couple of months (before deadline) and it didn't happen. I even mailed him Guy's chapter. I said, I've been waiting eight years ... let's talk.
But the flip side to me is, I realized the 30-40 pages Steve would have taken up could make room for Jim James and Scott Avett and Kasey Chambers — all these other people who hadn't been on the record talking about Townes. Everybody knows what Steve thinks of Townes. I thought it gave it a really fresh perspective.
Some of your subjects perpetuate the picture of Townes as a self-destructive drunk and drug user whose demons fueled his music. Do you have a clearer picture of him now?
I think I have a clearer picture of him as a songwriter. As a person? One thing I didn't get into in writing the book was writing about the mental issues and drinking and all that. Some stories were shining lights on that, but personally, I'd known that (stuff) going into the project. It's a case-by-case basis; maybe it was for Townes. It's like David Olney said about Billie Holiday, that maybe if she hadn't been a junkie and she had gotten sober, she might have become a seamstress or something.
What is his legacy as a songwriter?
I don't want to make any great Steve Earle-like pronouncements (Earle famously ranked Van Zandt above Bob Dylan), but I kind of feel that 50 years from now I think he will be as widely known everywhere as he is here, as being in the league of Dylan and Hank (Williams) and Woody Guthrie.
I just think it's important for people to know about Townes. I lose perspective living here in Austin, where the guy at H-E-B who's bagging my groceries knows how to play "Snowin' On Raton." I start thinking, the word really has spread, but then I go back to visit my folks in Pennsylvania and I get the blank stares.
‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’