Friday, October 29, 2010

"No Lonesome Tune" / Townes Van Zandt


I knew I'd have to get around to Townes Van Zandt sooner or later.  All the Texas songwriters I admire have a Townes cover somewhere in their repertory, and they utter his name with awestruck reverence; hell, Steve Earle even named his son Justin Townes.  He's like the ultimate songwriter's songwriter, with all the irony that implies -- his own records never made much of a splash, and while his songs raked in the big bucks for folks like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Townes himself was still living in a trailer park and playing dive bars.

Mind you, he wasn't exactly a model citizen -- born into one of Fort Worth's oldest, wealthiest, and most prominent families, Townes was a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, and an on-again-off-again junkie for much of his life.  When he died in 1997 at age 52, I reckon nobody was surprised -- but they sure were sad.  Just listen to this song and you'll see why.

This video was shot during a private concert at a Holiday Inn in Houston, back in 1988 -- what a treasure trove! It's just Townes sitting on a sofa with his guitar, running through a number of his best songs.  He reminds me of Anthony Perkins, somehow, that same fragile tough quality, like a poet crushed by reality.  It's easy to romanticize such a tragic gifted figure; I'm sure Townes made life miserable for people who were close to him, not to mention frustrating for fans who'd pay good money to watch him slosh his way through a set, forgetting half the lyrics.  But still.  But still. 

Isn't this song just a killer?  "No Lonesome Tune" leads off Townes' 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (pretty much the most ironic album title ever, coming from a 28-year-old singer who had never had a hit record and would live for another 27 years).  It's a classic theme, about a "lost high roller" vowing to clean up his act and head home to "the sweetest girl around." That yearning for stability, for decency, for redemption, rings painfully true.

The lyrics don't have to be clever or show-off poetic when you get the emotions so right. And the lyrics don't have to be clever when you can write a melody like this. Dancing right on the intersection of country and folk, Townes Van Zandt could evoke heartbreak and lonesomeness like nobody's business.  Maybe that's because he knew them so well himself.

I can't pass myself off as a Townes Van Zandt expert, and yet I don't know why.  I love everything of his I've ever heard, even when it's sung by somebody else -- more often than not, somebody perfectly capable of writing his own great songs, who still prefers to sing Townes'.  I can't tell you how often I've been surprised to discover that so-and-so's wonderful song is in fact a Townes Van Zandt cover.  Ever since my good music friend Tom sent me a compilation of Townes' songs -- a sampler, a teaser -- I keep promising myself to explore more of his music.  Maybe Texas Music Week is a sign that it's high time I did it. Any Townes fans out there care to give me some suggestions?


NickS said...

I can't pass myself off as a Townes Van Zandt expert

I wouldn't call myself a Townes Van Zandt expert either, I do think he's the sort of artist for whom the bar for "expertise" is set relatively high. First of all, you know there are people who are obsessive TVZ-ophiles. Secondly he is both iconic and somewhat obscure -- there isn't, as far as I know, any critical consensus about what represents his best or most representative work, and a bunch of his albums are out of print or hard to find.

Beyond that, there is a way in which he challenges the listener (and, presumably, himself as well). I've listed to the two fantastic studio albums High, Low and in Between and Late Great . . . and a smattering of later live recordings, and the latter were different than what I would have expected. I'm used to artists who, as they age, re-visit their old material and themes with a broader perspective. Not only have they gotten older but, in many cases, they've worked through some of the specific creative impulses and problems that drove them early in their career and a bring a more diverse musical sense to their performances.

That's not the sense I got from Townes Van Zandt. His performance style changed, but he came across as, if anything, with even less ability to manage or control his relationship to the emotional themes of his work. He seems even more emphatically emotional and driven than he did in his earlier work.

I realize, writing that, that it sounds awfully close to the stereotype of Townes Van Zandt, but it took me a long time to appreciate an album like The Highway Kind which seemed less emotionally balanced than High, Low and in Between.

On another note, I just wanted to say that I appreciate the Texas music week and its fun to read you writing about some new materials and some people like Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark for whom your evolving affection has been documented on this blog. It makes me curious, what is the best way to recommend music to you. I know I'm frequently inclined to link to some other song when I comment here, but I also have moments when I think of something that I think you would like that I might or might not ever pass along.

I don't want to be too pushy since I did recently try to tempt you with the mix that I posted to my site, which I know is a lot of new music, if you do listen to it, but there are other musicians or albums that I would mention at some point.

Holly A Hughes said...

You got it, Nick -- the Townes catalog is inscrutable at times. From what I've read, it's also complicated by the fact that he'd often sign off on tracks in order to get cash for the next hit, with no regard for the production quality.

I'd love to get your tips for future music -- I really respect your taste, Nick. Go over to my website,, and click on the email option.