When journalist Brian T. Atkinson was sent to Galveston in 2003 to cover the sixth annual Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) wake for No Depression, he never imagined his first magazine assignment would result in his first book.
Wrecks Bell, owner of the Old Quarter, hosts the wake on January 1, opening the microphone to anyone who wants to perform a Townes song. The evening begins around 7 p.m. and lasts until everyone’s had their turn and Bell has led the crowd in a rousing version of “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes’ best known hit, a tune that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard rode to number one on the 1983 country charts.
“Everyone that got up to play a song had a story about Townes,” Atkinson said during a phone interview from his home in Austin. “It was either hilarious or heartbreaking.”
The evening gave the young writer the idea of putting something together about Townes’ wide-ranging influence in the world of music. He wasn’t sure how he’d do it, but after seeing the outpouring of devotion from Townes’ fans, he knew there was a book waiting to be written.
“I didn’t have the idea for the particular way this came out, but I wanted to have a book about people telling stories about Townes,” he explained. “I’m happy it’s finally out there.”
The end result of Atkinson’s night at the wake is “I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt,” released in November of 2010 by Texas A&M University Press. The book is a collection of Townes tales, told by those who experienced his genius firsthand or whose art has been influenced by Townes’ songs. The book is crafted in a format that will appeal to long-time Townes fans, as well as those who are just discovering the magic of his music.
When he started on the project, Atkinson was living in Denver, working as a stringer for several magazines while collecting interviews about Townes.
He wasn’t having a lot of success with the project.
“Early on, I didn’t have a connection,” he said with a laugh. “I had to go through the wringer just to line up interviews because I was just a freelancer who wrote for a couple of magazines. It took forever.”
Then, he caught his first break.
“I did a feature on Gruene Hall [in San Marcos],” he noted. “I got to Lyle Lovett for that and said to him, ‘Hey man. I’m working on this book about Townes. You got 10-15 more minutes?’ He was more than happy to talk. He even called me back to tell me more.”
Fortune continued to smile on him when he told Nashville producer Tamara Saviano about the project.
“Tamara introduced me to Gary Hartman at Waterloo Records,” Atkinson said. “I told him about the book and he said, ‘Finish it.’”
At the beginning of the book, Atkinson introduces Townes to readers with stories by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Townes’ sometime producer, and Harold F. Eggers Jr., his manager and business partner of many years.
He also includes an early chapter with a prophetic quote from Townes, who died of complications from alcohol addiction.
“Like, I think my life will run out before my work does, you know? I’ve designed it that way,” Townes says in the 2005 documentary “Be Here to Love Me.”
Atkinson, who also wrote the liner notes for Guy Clark’s 2011 tribute CD, “This One’s For Him,” then turns to some of the many artists who ran with Townes in the glory days and also to younger musicians who have chosen to follow Townes’ rich songwriting traditions.
The list of contributors reads like a who’s who of Americana music: Vince Bell, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Chip Taylor, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Todd Snider, Shaw Camp, James McMurtry, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Kasey Chambers, Terri Hendrix, Jack Ingram and Grace Potter.
The stories these artists share are by turns comic and tragic – but all are rich and complex, like the man himself.
“I loved Townes’ use of the English language, the words he chose,” says Guy Clark, the current dean of Texas music and Townes’ best friend for over 30 years. “They were some really good, really clean, well educated words. Plus, he was writing about some pretty weird stuff. ... Everytime Townes and I thought we were pretty hot ... we’d get a tape of Dylan Thomas reading his own work and put it on. That’d put a stop to that ... Townes’ songs stand up against [that] literature.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard, who has had his own struggles with demons, learned the hard way not to bet against Townes.
“Townes bet me $100 that he’d go onstage and stand on his head for the whole song while Jerry [Jeff Walker] did ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ ... Townes went out there and stood on his head the whole time. That was the last time I gambled with him.”
Kris Kristofferson, a superstar who mastered music and films, appreciated Townes’ talent and recognized his penchant for suffering for his art.
“Like a lot of us, [Townes] was in love with the beautiful loser ideal, the guy who was trying to be Hank Williams and die when he was 29. It’s a very seductive role model ... to burn out rather than to rust.”
Townes did, in fact, emulate his hero Williams at the end. They both died on January 1.
Lovett, who has recorded several Townes songs and who is always quick to give credit to his early influences, says, “In performing one of his songs, I try to live up to what Townes has written, what he has said. But really, I just enjoy living inside his song for four minutes ... To be able to inhabit one of Townes’ songs, to be inside it and say the words and feel their meaning is a very real thing ... With words as beautiful as his and melodies so strong and haunting, it’s an emotional and very powerful experience.”
Australian star Kasey Chambers didn’t know Townes, but she’s felt the power of his lyrics.
“As a songwriter, Townes had a way of putting words together that didn’t always make sense ... and it still rips out my heart and soul for some reason. ... Townes made me realize as a songwriter that sometimes it’s okay that a line just sounds right and feels right, and it doesn’t always have to make sense.”
Jack Ingram, a hardworking musician who plays by his own rules, talks about the toll that alcohol abuse had on Townes.
“That’s what gets lost in the translation in the mythical folklore about Townes, and especially in how much he’s grown in mythical stature – the real harsh reality about alcoholism. The idea that someone as big as Townes Van Zandt gets reduced to being helped off the stage by an old friend takes some of the fun out of it. Having seen that, for me it’s like the cold hard light of day.”
Fellow Texan Rodney Crowell comments on the breadth of Townes’ career and laments his fall from grace.
“Early on, it was breathtaking to see Townes perform,” he writes. “He was so good. Later on, I couldn’t watch it. It made me too sad; the alcohol had really diminished his capacities. ... Townes or Bob Dylan would be the pinnacle of the singer-songwriter-performer, but I think Townes saw to it pretty well that he wouldn’t be as well known as Dylan.”
Grammy winning artist and fellow Texan Steve Earle, who idolized Townes and followed him down the road of substance abuse before getting clean, once said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
Atkinson also believes Townes’ lyrics are second to none.
“He was a singular songwriter who changed the way people look at songwriting and music and what is possible about songwriting,” he said at the conclusion of our interview. “I think this is just the beginning. This is just the third book. They’ll be writing books forever. Mine is just one effort. In 50 years, Townes is going to be close to or at least as well known as Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.”
Click here to watch a video of Townes Van Zandt at the top of his game performing “If I Needed You” at Austin City Limits in 1975.
To learn more about Townes Van Zandt, see the biographies
“To Live’s to Fly” (2008) by John Kruth and
“A Deeper Blue” (2009) by Robert Earl Hardy.
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