"No Lonesome Tune" / Townes Van Zandt
TEXAS MUSIC WEEK
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?