By Richard Skanse
Five years after Townes Van Zandt succumbed to a heart attack at the too-young age of 52 and left this world on January 1, 1997, the incomparable music he left behind remains the benchmark by which nearly all modern day singer-songwriters of the folk and Americana persuasion are measured. When critics bemoan the beer and Lone Star flag-waving obsession of too many a current quote-unquote Texas songwriter, Van Zandt’s is invariably the first name cited when they recall a time when the title signified something altogether more special. His contemporaries like Guy Clark, Butch Hancock and Billy Joe Shaver are all given equal credit and respect, but they’ll be among the first to tell you that Van Zandt’s gift was singular. As Shaver himself puts it with conviction, “As far as I was concerned, he was the best songwriter that ever lived. And that’s it.”
Shaver, along with Clark, Hancock (with the Flatlanders), Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams and a host of other A-List songwriters take terms supporting that statement with their uniformly excellent performances of some of Van Zandt’s finest songs on the recently released Poet – A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Few, if any, all-star tribute albums have likely ever been such a labor of love for all involved; with the sole exception of newcomer Pat Haney (who holds his own a stark reading of “Waitin’ Round to Die”), every one of the artists on the album knew and loved Van Zandt first hand, be it as a friend, a brave companion of the road, a mentor, and in the case of John T. Van Zandt, a father.
J.T. Van Zandt, 32, is not a singer or songwriter by trade. He’s a wood worker, with little to no interest in following in his father’s footsteps (at least not yet). But it’s his album-closing version of “My Proud Mountains” on Poet that brings the listener closest to the heart of the man being celebrated. “Lend an ear to my singin’,” sings the son in a voice all but indistinguishable from the father’s, “cause I’ll be back no more.”
Van Zandt was a wanderer, and it probably speaks volumes that when J.T. speaks of him he calls him by his first name. “He wasn’t really present as a father figure, but he’s given me a lot I get to hang onto,” says J.T. “He turned out to be much more of a friend. We really enjoyed each other’s company.” During the ’90s, he often accompanied Van Zandt and his road manager Harold Eggers on tour, the three of them piling into an old white GMC pick-up dubbed “The Colonel.” His memories of those road trips are bittersweet, as his father at that point had been reduced to a frequently unmanageable, almost child-like state due to alcoholism. But on more than one occasion J.T. also got a rare, first-hand look at Van Zandt at his most vulnerable, human and magical. Herewith, he shares some of his stories for the first time.
Was there any hesitation on your part when you were first asked to be a part of the Poet tribute?
I didn’t really see my place on it [at first], but I think it’s a case of where if I hadn’t have done it, I would have regretted it. Because I have his guitar, and I use his guitar on the album, it just became personal and I wanted to do it. I didn’t have any emotional problems with doing it. I’ve played at a few of his tributes, and I’ve sat around with him finger picking, and I’ve played with a lot of the other folks on the album just sitting around and stuff. I think that I was maybe paranoid about some people thinking I was using it as a launching pad, but I think I was ignoring the truth, that if I got in the session it would be really emotional, and it did.
Why did you pick “My Proud Mountains”?
Townes spent a good part of his childhood in Colorado, and I think some of his more enjoyable childhood moments come from being up there and just being in the wildlife. And when he went to college he went back to Boulder University, or CU, and after he dropped out of college he became like an outfitter so to speak — he packed people’s supplies. He wasn’t like an outfitter himself, he was just sort of a wrangler that led horses and took supplies into the mountains for people that were going into the mountains for expeditions and stuff like that. He had a real love for the outdoors, but after he started touring it just seemed like an impracticality for him … the type of life he led didn’t allow him to really take those kind of trips anymore. But I knew that down in his heart, beneath the day-to-day struggles of being on the road, that he hung onto that. I think he had a real ambition to escape society. I really think that he would have loved to have lived unknown out on a ranch and had a happy family and all that sort of stuff up in the mountains somewhere. And he was able in that song to me to sum up the experience for anyone who longs to live in the mountains. And I spent a lot of time in Colorado too, doing those things. When he was still around, I went up there to become a fly fishing guide for a few seasons, and he was just enthralled with the idea that I was doing that. He was so super proud, and was telling all his friends on the road that I was guiding fly fishing. And he really just sprung out of character when he found out that I was starting to make wooden boats, and some of the things that perhaps he wanted to do with his life if it wasn’t for the songwriting. So that song just became really personal between he and I and I just felt like it was the only song to do on the album.
It’s been a couple of months since the release of Poet. What are your thoughts on how it came out?
It makes me feel sorry for people that didn’t get a chance to see Townes, especially live. I can have two answers on this. As far as everyone covering their songs, I think they did a great job. It’s obvious that there’s kind of a tone and a mood to the album. But compared to Townes’ versions, they’re all pretty inadequate [Laughs]. Especially mine. For anyone that ever saw Townes live, there’s a different experience associated with all of the songs. And all of the people that did songs experienced that, and their versions were kind of a take on that experience. There’s kind of an understanding among people that knew Townes of how great he was and how special the environment at one of these gigs was.
How old were you when first started to appreciate your father’s music?
I think I appreciated his guitar picking when I was young, because he was an incredible guitar picker back then. He wore metal picks on all four of his fingers and a thumb pick, and he could just play the piano on the strings down there — it would sound like a couple of guitars. And on his early albums, they’re kind of over produced, but you can hear that his playing was phenomenal. As he got older, he still could do it, but I think it was somewhat diminished just from the drinking and traveling and all the tough years. But at the beginning he was an outstanding fingerpicker. So I immediately dug the music, and I think I started getting into the lyrics when I was about 16. It was then that I started understanding how wise he was. By 20 — no, earlier than 20 I think — I knew that he was hot shit with a pen.
Would he ever confide in you when he was writing? Share any insight into the process?
In the later touring years of his life — he toured right up to the end — he was getting more … it was a lighter subject, writing songs. He was writing songs that were real plays on words, just extremely dramatic like “The Hole” and “Marie,” and he would run phrases by you, kind of sharing. But when he was younger, I think they just blitzed him out of nowhere and he just did what he could to write down all those thoughts. He and my mom had this small apartment, and there was this room in it that was as small as the smallest closet, and most of the songs that he wrote that were on his early albums were written in that closet. His songs just started surfacing. No one witnessed any of that. They were just all under Townes’ hat. His interpretation of how he wrote them was that he was just sort of a medium for all those songs — like the songs were around before he was, and he was just there when they popped out. That was just the explanation everyone was given. He never gave a straight answer on where they came from. Except for “If I Needed You.” Till his dying day, he swore that he woke up from a dream and wrote that entire song down. He stuck by his guns on that, that he woke up from a dream knowing all the words and the chord changes. That seems pretty bizarre, but I’ve been in much more bizarre situations with him than that, to his credit.
What do you think his songs meant to him after he wrote them?
If one of his songs was playing in a room, maybe after a show or at some kind of situation where he was being celebrated and present, he would demand — sometimes to a pretty freaky, violent level — that it be turned off. He would remove the sound of his music from any setting if he was there and trying to function as a normal person. It would be shocking to people, but if I heard a Townes song come on and Townes was around, it was basically a count-down to watch him run through a hallway and charge to the record player, maybe even destroying it to get it off of it.
Why was that?
I really don’t know. But truthfully, his music, his songs zapped him into a place that he didn’t necessarily want to be in. You didn’t have to get it or not, it just had to stop. You had to get that off.
Would he react the same to hearing his music if it was a cover by someone else, like Emmylou Harris’ “If I Needed You” or Willie and Merle doing “Pancho & Lefty”?
No. He was raised as a Southern gentleman, so he was very modest and very appreciative if someone else did his songs. It made him visually very proud. Like this album would make him so proud. Mainly just knowing what was behind it, for them all to stop their schedules to do one of his tunes for an album like this.
Willie’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” was a No. 1 country hit. Was Townes ever offered a major label deal in his life?
Yeah. There was one incident in particular. The person that he called his “driver,” his road manager Harold Eggers, had worked for a couple of years to get him set up with this one major label contract. And there was a signing bonus of like $80,000. Townes told Harold he thought it was a great idea, went along with everything. So they both go over to this record executive’s house — this huge estate in the real high-end part of Nashville. And the guy answers the door and says, “I’d like to tell you we sent the help home and my wife prepared the whole meal.” And Townes said, “I’m not here to eat your wife’s slop.” [Laughs] Before they’d even gone in the door. And the guy said, “Hold on one second.” Went in, got the check for $80 grand, came back and ripped it up and handed it to Harold. And Townes was so proud of that — like it was this huge achievement. Like he’d worked his whole life for that opportunity. That was real frustrating for Harold — I think there was a falling out. They ended up getting back together, though, and now Harold’s writing a book.
Why do you think Townes was so opposed to idea of a major label?
Townes was very spiteful of anything that … maybe part of the truth of it was that he had this kind of privileged upbringing, and some of his major heroes were people who didn’t have that. He had the opportunity to hang out with people like Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston after he dropped out of college, and I think in his own mind he probably thought that if he was going to hang out with Lightnin’ Hopkins — in order to be more genuine in his cravings for the blues — he really had to shed a lot of the advantages that he had. He wanted to be perceived as having the blues and being a guitar player more than anything else. The big thing to understand I think for people who aren’t aware of who Townes was was that he wasn’t famous at all during his life. He kind of had an understanding that he would be more appreciated after he was dead than he was alive. But he was the most super modest writer of them all, because he gave no credit to his songs at all. His major goal was just to be viewed as a traveling blues guitar player.
How badly do you think he had the blues?
He wasn’t able to let anything roll off — he just endured all the pain that he could imagine. It wasn’t a choice of his, he just soaked in that sadness sometimes, intense sadness. But he could come reeling out of it and be really witty and humorous too. It was just kind of the roller coaster of his mind that was always working.
I remember asking him things about politics and stuff as I entered my college time, and he’d say things like, “T, once you’ve had the blues, none of that shit makes any fucking difference. Any world news whatsoever — the price of gas, etc. — you can keep all that.” He would always say, “It’s a fucking bitch.” And you’d ask him, “What?” And he’d like fake spit and say, “It’s a bitch man. It’s a bitch.” When I lived with him, most of the mornings when I’d wake up, he would be on my bed, sitting on the foot of my bed with his head in his hands nodding back and forth going, “… fucking bitch,” and crying. A lot of that was the alcoholism — the ride that that takes you on is pretty unpleasant, but he had had that even before the alcoholism. He had insulin shock treatment put on him as a young man, and before that even, the draft decided he was mentally unstable to the point where he couldn’t serve. It was just everyone misreading someone that had a lot of insight into the problems and the emotions that people feel. Because his choice of words were very simple, it was just kind of the way he talked, but to anyone who wasn’t used to being around him, he could just box you in verbally. You had no way to answer the things he was saying, and he could prove and disprove himself right at the same time. He really had a way with the English language.
The similarity is made a lot, but in my own mind I think that the Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt correlation is that Townes lived long enough to dictate what Hank felt like in the last days. He warned that his end was coming — 30 years before his death, he said that it could be 30 years from now, but he basically warned you all the time that he was skating on that edge. I think I missed a lot of it, but there were a couple of instances that convinced me that he might have a deeper connection that I was unable to understand, that he was really coming to us all from a level above having to go to work and come home and all that other shit we go through every day. He saw right through that to a deeper meaning. I’ve never seen someone more able to in the worst circumstances, in the worst stage of personal abuse, be able to convince someone trying to help that they also have no other choice except the choices he’d made. He could convince someone that they were not only not able to help him, but that they had lied to themselves as well, and that their life was a sham and that they should also start drinking heavily. He could walk into an AA meeting and only say a few of words and have everyone rolling dice for a dollar a pop and drinking Vodka out of the bottle.
How did the drinking affect his writing?
This was near the end of his life. All of his major accomplishments were made a long time ago, and he wrote some great songs in this period, but they weren’t in the same group as his really popular songs that were written from ’69 to maybe ’77. And all those songs were written during a period when he didn’t have any of the visible signs of the abuse that was catching up to him or that he was even an abuser of any substance. The annoying assumption that’s always made in my mind is that somehow there’s a correlation between his substance abuse and his writing, but those two things were totally removed from each other — his ability to write was there long before he was a substance abuser. His music on the early albums was so separated, it wasn’t even an issue — alcoholism didn’t take effect until the last 10 years of his life, and then maybe only at his live shows to people who saw him every time at the Cactus Cafe; they would have an idea that he was really fucked up. But people who were just getting turned on to him in other states, buying his albums and stuff, they didn’t need to know that he was a helpless alcoholic. It was two different things.
What was it like being on the road with him during this period?
You couldn’t control him. A lot of my role on the road with him would be to ration out his vodka with water. There were times we were left in awe of trying to figure out what Townes’ magic was under this totally unmanageable shell of a 45-50 year-old stubborn-ass traveling songwriter. It was almost like Roky Erickson, because I was around him a lot too. Both of them were a lot smarter than they were crazy, and their boredom and their level of intelligence led to pranking the rest of us.
They knew what they could get away with?
Totally. Townes was a total spoiled brat.
[Laughs] One time at a Denny’s, I won this little stuffed animal baby buzzard in one of those crane games, which I was playing just to get away from the table. Townes, Harold and I would travel in this GMC pickup called The Colonel — it had some cabinets and a foam mattress in the camper for Townes, and we had these little Mickey Mouse walkie-talkies that he would use to yell at Harold or I to pull over at a liquor store. Sometimes we would shut the walkie-talkies off on him, and he would just be going berserk back there, banging on the window. He was very intense — he could be an absolute gentleman, but to the people he loved, he could scorn you pretty hard. But we kept this little baby buzzard on the dash, and whenever Townes got like, “Rawrrrr!”, you could reach for this buzzard and make it walk back and forth across the dash, make its head kind of bob, and he would burst into the laughter of a 6 year old. That was like the hidden emergency button.
What was the most memorable show you ever saw him play?
This is pretty bizarre … I haven’t told this to too many people. But he always felt that he saw white angels or goblins. It was one of the two, and if they were goblins, and you were in the airport with him, shit was about to hit the fan. You couldn’t control him. I would always dismiss it as dementia, but it would be the last thing you wanted to hear, because he was already a challenge for two people just to get him out of the car or into the gig or off the stage. And then to hear about goblins and all this stuff, it was like, give me a fucking break!
But there was this gig in Juno, Alaska at this place called the Norhtern Lights Church. The town had actually gotten together and done the promotion and the people at the show had paid for their tickets in advance in the hopes of luring Townes to come up. So everyone there not only wanted to see Townes but had something to do with him being there. And there was this kind of tour guide who was a songwriter, and we made her aware very early on that she was going to have a big role in making sure the show went down, because Townes at this point was like having five kids under 5 years old on your hands. So this girl checked in and she was a champ. I told her I was going to hide from Townes 30 minutes before the show and that he was not allowed to have any booze. He starts screaming “If I don’t see T, I ain’t going on …” But he was too skinny to fight this big old Alaskan songwriter chick and she just pushed him out there. [Laughs] Then the crowd started roaring, and he became very humble and played the most amazing show on the whole tour. After the gig, he still hadn’t had a drink, and the promoters brought this old Alaskan shaman up to meet him, because she had had something to tell him. She told him through an interpreter that the only reason that he was able to balance on his stool all night was because there was this angel supporting him from behind with her wings spread. He just told her, “I dig … I’m hip.”
That was when I stopped trying to convince myself that he wasn’t capable of those kind of visions. His road manager Harold and I really started treating him differently after that — because it was so convincing that he wasn’t full of shit.
What is it that’s kept you from following the same path he did? Have you ever felt a call to be a songwriter?
I fantasized as a kid about being a songwriter. With a dad who’s a performer, you’re like, “Wow, where’s my first guitar, when am I going to start writing songs?” stuff like that. But no, I really don’t pursue music at all. The way that Townes pursued it, and the way that he kind of instilled in me to pursue it, was to almost abandon all and if you didn’t leave your spot with just a guitar and your ambition to be a blues player, then you really didn’t have it in you to be preaching as such. If I feel myself getting pulled towards that lifestyle I just want to get kind of depressed and dramatic and start living that way, too. So I keep a day job to keep that from happening. I don’t necessarily feel it that often, but it’s there. Sometimes I get spells of the type of blues that he had. But after his death, I think I always thought that it would be a minimal 10 years before I’d even consider it. Then I thought, maybe first I’ll give a shot at being happy. And if that doesn’t work out, then I’ll definitely be a songwriter.