In the 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways, Townes Van Zandt takes a puff from a cigarette and begins plucking his guitar strings, wryly declaring, “I’ll play a medley of my hit,” before easing into a gorgeous, intimate performance of his 1972 song “Pancho and Lefty.” The oft-covered narrative that’s maybe-or-maybe-not based on Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa became a defining song for both Van Zandt and outlaw country itself. It’s been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and made into an even bigger hit by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983, earning the Texas singer/songwriter his largest source of income through its royalties, and even once getting him out of a citation from two policemen who, coincidentally, had nicknamed each other—you guessed it—Pancho and Lefty.
Yet Townes Van Zandt rarely showed much interest in finding success as a mainstream country artist, and loathed celebrity enough to turn down the opportunity to collaborate with even Bob Dylan. Though respected by fellow songwriters—Steve Earle called him the best songwriter in the world, and Mickey Newbury dubbed him greater than Hank—his albums didn’t sell particularly well during his lifetime, and he preferred to release his songs with simpler arrangements rather than big-budget Nashville productions. He never quite fit into the industry or among the stars that so often sung his praises; even decades later, his name is often left out of the canon.
Standing apart, on his own, was the norm for Townes Van Zandt, an artist who spent most of his career straddling the line between restlessness and loneliness. Contradictions, often tragic, often charted the course of his career. The son of a wealthy attorney, Van Zandt earned acceptance into the University of Houston’s pre-law program before being rejected from an application to join the Air Force due to his bipolar disorder diagnosis. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, kicking off what would be a lifelong struggle with addiction, which likely contributed to his death of a heart attack in 1997 at age 53. And in 1962 he suffered a loss of much of his long-term memory due to treatment of now discredited insulin shock therapy. The experience robbed him of a complete sense of self, but it left behind a raw nerve.
Early on in his career, Van Zandt struck a balance between the satirical humor in live staples such as “Fraternity Blues” with a genuine earnestness and sadness that characterized much of his best-known and most affecting songs. The pain was often very real even when the stories weren’t true, but countrypolitan Nashville production did his music few favors. After playing regularly in Houston for years and briefly sharing quarters with the 13th Floor Elevators’ frontman Roky Erickson, Van Zandt recorded his debut album For the Sake of the Song with producer Jack Clement. Rather than steep its songs in pedal steel and barroom piano, For the Sake of the Song is awash in reverb, organ and harpsichords. It sounds like no other country record at the time, and perhaps no (non-“alt”) country record since, but in losing the bare essence of several of its songs to experimental sonic treatments and curious arrangements, Van Zandt saw fit to re-record about half of its songs, most of them forming the backbone of his greatest album in 1969, simply titled Townes Van Zandt.
A self-titled album rarely means anything other than a blown deadline and a spent imagination, but for Townes Van Zandt, it’s the purest essence of his own beautiful and tragic bundle of contradictions. The album is his third, released the same year as the similarly gorgeous and stark Our Mother the Mountain, the work of a troubadour’s troubadour, in league with Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake as much as Hank or Johnny or Willie. These are songs of desperation and wanderlust, heartbreak and open-heartnedness. Though only twenty-five at the time of its release, Van Zandt sings with the weathered and worn tone of someone 10 or 20 years his senior, each reflection rendered from a romantically hopeless perspective. Even the album’s cover art projects a feeling of weariness; where his gaze on the front of Our Mother could bore holes into your soul, here he’s sitting, eyes closed, at a kitchen table, looking as if he’s simply waiting for the formality to be over with.
From the first acoustic plucks of “For the Sake of the Song,” the opening song is recognizably transformed from that of its previous year’s namesake album, given the benefit of space to breathe and allow its beauty to shine through without any hindrance to clutter it up. Its open arrangement better serves Van Zandt’s poetic reflection on a breakup, more beautifully underlines the lament of a rambler resigned to accept his fate of going wherever the road takes him: “My sorrow is real, even though I can’t change my plans.” It’s a lament that echoes through another stark recurrence from that prior album, “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” in which Van Zandt once again taps into that overwhelming call of the open road, musing, “There’s no stronger wind that blows than one that blows down a lonesome railroad line.”
Much of the album is wrapped up in goodbyes and reunions—primarily the former. Van Zandt doesn’t deny himself a moment to feel every ache or twinge, but the urge to be somewhere else is a force too strong for him to fight. Occasionally it’s somewhere he once called home; “Colorado Girl” feels more like a paean to a place than a person, its simple folk melody capturing an affection for a state that would form the backdrop for more than a few songs throughout his catalog. The bittersweet sorrow of “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel,” one of the few songs here with a proper live band arrangement—drumkit and all—feels significantly less bitter through Van Zandt’s nimble wordplay: “I ain’t gonna try to make you cry/The tear drops couldn’t find your eyes/It’s all been swell, Miss Carousel/But the time has come for leaving.”
Townes Van Zandt found an unlikely beauty in isolation and separation, though a few of the greatest moments on the album are those that dare face the darkness head on. The brief and gritty “Lungs” ponders the fleeting nature of life itself through a flashback to his insulin shock therapy and the breathing troubles that resulted from the treatment: “Won’t you lend your lungs to me, mine are collapsing/Plant my feet and bitterly breathe up time that’s passing.” Perhaps the album’s greatest song is “Waiting Around to Die,” a pitch-black account of crime, drug addiction and domestic abuse (“Well, one time friends, I had a ma, I even had a pa/he beat her with a belt once, ’cause she cried“). He concludes, in the face of the cruelty of that surrounds us and the inevitable that awaits us, that surrendering to his vices isn’t any worse than any other path: “I guess I keep a-gamblin’, lots of booze, and lots of ramblin’/Well, it’s easier than just a-waitin’ around to die.” He was cautious not to play it live too often because he didn’t want to burden his audiences with “blues on blues on blues,” but it is one of the highlights on his greatest live document, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. Forty-eight years later, a fellow band of Texas greats, Power Trip, paid tribute to Van Zandt in naming one of their own songs “Waiting Around to Die” on their 2017 album Nightmare Logic; sadly, their own vocalist Riley Gale would likewise end up living a far too short life, passing away during the summer of 2020.
I first heard Townes Van Zandt during an unanticipated period of rambling and restlessness in my own life. Just months after we were married, my wife and I were left to sleep on couches for a few weeks and given 48 hours to cram every last possession we owned into a storage space because of an unknown plumbing problem and a pair of landlords potentially looking for a way to double dip on the insurance payout. Having access to music was the least of my problems at the time, but after finding a new semi-permanent place to lay our heads, all I could do was dive headlong into endless stacks of records I’d never heard before, including Townes’ self-titled record (which I also bought shortly before moving across the country, in another moment of interesting symmetry). He lived a life I didn’t, willfully forgoing any kind of security and accompanied only by his muse—perhaps the only companion that remained by his side. But as I spent months trying to once again feel settled and secure, I found a strange sense of comfort in his bleary ballads. Townes Van Zandt didn’t idealize the promise of tomorrow, but saw the grace in the broken and regretful here and now.
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