Cool hand Zandt
Kenny Mathieson considers the life 5
and hard times of legendary Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt
Backstage this summer. a musician friend of Townes Van Zandt happened to mention that he had received a call from the semi-legendary Texan singer- songwritcr recently. but hadn't been home to take it. The remark brought an enquiry after Van Zandt's current state of health and well-being. The musician thought for a moment. smiled affectionately, and replied. ‘Well. he was able to use the phone . . .' .
There is no getting around Van Zandt's reputation for giving hirnselfand his system a hard time. His life has sometimes seemed to take on the outlines of one of his dark. despairing ballads. and hard times are etched in the lean. graven lines of his face.
Born in Fort Worth. Texas. he began singing in the bars and coffee-houses of Houston in the mid-60s with buddies Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. and took to the life of the travelling troubadour, working small clubs and writing songs. with the occasional recording thrown in.
His career has been punctuated by intermittent and often lengthy withdrawals to secluded. run-down hideaways. and he suffers from periodic bouts of deep depression and ‘total loss of meaning and motivation'. Through it all. though. he kept on writing his characteristically wide-ranging. acutely observed songs. drawing on blues. country and folk idioms.
‘l started out playing other people’s songs down in Houston. but most ofthe people i played with could sing better than me. so I ﬁgured I had to have something else. Writing a song isn‘t really that mysterious — you have to want to do it. and the more you do it. the higher the level you want to try and reach.
‘For me. the only real prerequisite is that l have to be alone. but after that songs come in a lot of different ways. Some of them feel as ifyou hadn't
really anything to do with them. you just kinda wrote them down. Bukka White used to call them sky songs i
— there's no telling where they came from. Other songs you have to work on. a line at a time. sometimes for months till you get it right. and that is where the craftsmanship comes in.‘
Van Zandt and hit records have remained strangers over the years. but his songs have gone where their creator has not. He has been hailed by fellow Texan Steve Earle as the greatest songwriter alive. a sentiment which has been echoed less extravagantly by countless admirers. from Willie Nelson and Nanci Griffith to Lyle Lovett and The Cowboy Junkies.
Emrnylou Ham's and Don Williams started the ball rolling with their hit version of If] Needed You back in I981, but it was Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard‘s version of Pancho and Lefty two years later which really placed his songwriting talents
firmly on the map. Even at that stage. though. it was a belated recognition of a writing talent which had been demonstrated many times over.
These days. Van Zandt's third wife, Jeancne. looks after his publishing interests and sells his songs. but he still admits that the business end of the music business is a closed book to him. and he likes itjust fine that way. His own records are sought out by
There is no getting around Van Zandt’s reputation for giving himself and his system a hard time. His life has sometimes seemed to take on the outlines of one of his dark, despairing ballads, and hard times are etched in the lean, graven lines of his face.
those in the know. without making much ofa dent on the wider public consciousness. but he admits that making records has never been his main concern.
His first album. the emblematically-titled For The Sake OfA Song. was issued in 1968. and he has made a dozen or so more over the years. usually on small independent labels. often recorded live and bearing self—deprecating titles like The Late. Great Townes Van Zandt or Live And Obscure.
Townes Van Zandt: Texas twister
‘Records are not a numero uno priority with me. and ifl had to try to live off what I make on records. i couldn't even start to do it. i tend to do them more to get the songs down for posterity. and these days. it's real hard to get work if you don't have a record to send out to promoters and stuff.‘
Last year's No Deeper Blue. cut in Ireland with ex- Nanci Grifﬁth guitarist Philip Donnelly as producer.
3 is one of his best studio efforts. and the songs
confirmed him all over again as a great chronicler of
; his life and times. They included what he claimed to be the first song he ever wrote specifically for i somebody else.
‘l never really think about a song being for anybody — it'sjust a message I want'to send out. or it could be
just a collection of words that fit nicely together. I
had never thought that l was going to write a song for somebody in particular until I toured with The Cowboy Junkies in 1990. and i wrote Cowboy Junkies Lament on the tour bus. I didn't think i could write on the bus either. come to that.‘
The band returned the favour with their own Townes 's Blues. and added another norch to the legend. Whether Townes Van Zandt will ever step out from behind his cult status seems unlikely. and maybe not even desirable. He is surely too low-key ever to be a star. but he is deﬁnitely one hell ofa songwriter.
Townes Van Zandt plays his only Scottish (late at The Ferry. Glasgow. on Thurs 7.
The List l-l4 Dec 1995 35