Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.
For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.
Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.
CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.
I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.
Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):
longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?
CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.
longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.
CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.
longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!
CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.
longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?
CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.
longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?
CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.
longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.
CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.
longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??
CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.
longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.
CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.
longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!
CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.
longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.
CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.
longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?
CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.
longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.
Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!
(Sound of clinking glasses).
(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
31 thoughts on “Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt”
For all the hard-living, bad luck and choices stories, the guy was quite the lyricist as this post discusses. He could do narrative songs well, but I’m kind of partial to the compressed lyric, and for that I’ll add “Flying Shoes.” Not a word wrong or wasted in that one.
I think you hit something there with the narrative versus compressed lyric. Maybe that’s why I have trouble applying the Waylon and Willie “outlaw country” tag? Dunno. He’s definitely not Nashville country, and Texas country might also be a stretch. Townes Country, maybe!
(“Flying Shoes” is a lovely song.)
Two giants of the blogosphere converge in Texas! Great conversation, guys. Townes would have been proud and impressed.
Hey, next time we’ll have to include Philadelphia…get a free jazz thing going, Neil. Hope Townes woulda liked it, despite the switch to Moosehead.
Hey, Canada is a good country. It’s a good idea to support their products.
I like Pete’s idea about the “free jazz” thing. As far as Canada goes, yeah not a bad place to lay your hat. Townes, an interesting guy with his own style.
Hi CB and Pete. Yeah, maybe a free jazz gathering is possible. We can keep it in mind.
Good piece, boys. Just after I finished reading, Robert Forster sang “Wondering who sings better in the dark is it Townes Van Zandt, or is it Guy Clark?”
Thank you, Aphoristical. We had fun down there. Had to look up Robert Forster. I think I remember him from Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Banyon. Re the quote you cited, both Townes and Guy were talented singers, but Townes was probably lyrically darker, so I’m guessing he’d sing better in darkness. (CB might have his own thoughts on that, as he knows them better.)
There are two Robert Forsters – one is an actor and the other is an Australian musician from a band named The Go-Betweens who mainly operated in the 1980s. I think Cincinnati Babyhead is a fan.
That explains it. I thought it was a bit odd, an older actor singing about Van Zandt and Clark! I’m a fan too, at least of “Streets of Your Town,” one of my favorite ’80s songs, though I never knew the band members’ names. Thanks for enlightening me, Apho.
You are also a man of words Aph, I’m still digging into all that stuff you nudged me towards. What a great lyric. Never heard it. Just more proof that Van Zandt is alive and well with people. If I was listening to a song and heard that reference I would sit up and take notice. As far as the question, Townes for sure.
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I’m there with you. Nice work!
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Glad you pulled up a barstool, David. “To live’s to thru-hike.” 🙂
Another great meeting of the minds. Townes’ name is known to me and I know he’s come up before but I really don’t know his stuff. I wonder if the Juanita of which you speak is the one of which Lowell George once sang.
You are correct sir! There are a couple other Little Feat associations in there, along with native-Texas writer Larry McMurtry. Just thought we’d have a little fun with it.
Yes, you really have to dig for Townes’s stuff. Like you, I’m not much for straight country, but he’s a whole different animal. He really knocked me out when I discovered him, and I’m still mining his lode of songs.
Not surprising that the Doc would get those connections. Impressive.
Great piece, lads – really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of Townes. Ever since an old pal threw Live at the Old Quarter my way I figured that he was the best there ever was… and I would agree that his music is more than outlaw country. It’s deep rooted in the soil and sand.It’s country, blues, and folk. He was more than a songwriter, too. As CB says, he sang the truth.
“Time among the pine trees
It felt like breath of air
Usually I just walk these streets
And tell myself to care.
Sometimes I believe me
And sometimes I don’t hear.
Sometimes the shape I’m in
Won’t let me go.”
I was saying over at CB’s place that I was listening to Sky Blue the other day, which led to watching the clips from Heartworn Highways, so this chat is timely. Heartworn Highways, as a documentary, doesn’t do much to shed light on the ‘outlaws’, but the performances are incredible.
Anyhoo, again, great post – I’m away to listen to Highway Kind.
Great to have you pull up a barstool, J. (at the Texas Rose Café, and also longitudes). The Old Quarter album is my personal favorite of Townes’s. Double LP, almost a “best of,” just him and acoustic, in a sympathetic club setting. And he’s in great form. His jokes and talking blues only add to the ambience.
I’ve seen most of Heartworn Highways, a scattershot affair for sure, but it’s great to have as a document of a certain time and place.
Again, thanks for the clever idea you and CB hatched…Cheers!
Yeah – it’s a really wonderful listen. Relaxed, intimate, and warm. In many ways the ideal entry point for the ‘almost best of’ qualities you highlight.
Heartworn Highways could certainly have done with some focus, but as you say, it serves as a document for a time and place… and the performances (from everyone) are great. Townes’ Waitin’ Around To Die is particularly affecting.
Tom add to your comment J. I think we are all shaped by our environment so your “rooted in sand, soil ..” thing is so true. All that big sky, big space had an effect on him. Could you imagine Townes in a cement city? Plus there was the highways and roads. Like the lyric from White Freightliner Blues “won’t you steal away my mind. Love it.
Completely agree, CB.
Live at the Old Quarter got me through a rough patch in life. I’d lay down at night with the lights off and just let Townes’ music wash over me. I always tried to stay awake long enough to hear his cover of Nine Pound Hammer. His music is a true elixir.
I can understand how that record could be helpful. Townes accompanied me through some mild depression back in 2015. “Elixir” is a good word.
CB thank you for directing me to this exchange on the Late Great TVZ. Wonderful to read it and know there are other TVZ appreciators out there.
I got to Townes through a 25c Steve Earle CD I picked up at a yard sale, “Train A Comin’ ” and heard “Tecumsah Valley” for the first time and fell in love with it. Looking a little closer I saw who wrote it. It was a domino effect from there. I saw, then bought, the doc, which I’ve seen a time or two and a few of his albums. Believe it or not, Townes spoke to me once when I was walking a labyrinth :::cue Twilight Zone music:::: He only said one thing, but I never forgot it: “Don’t judge.” Not sure if you know about the movie, “Blaze,” which is a biopic on Blaze Foley. In it, Charlie Sexton plays TVZ.
Thanks for the comment, and glad you enjoyed our Texas Road Café rendezvous!
You are most welcome, Pete.
Good read guys. Glad you made it to Texas CB, that’s quite a journey from Vancouver. Archer City, home of Larry McMurtry, the iconic saint of Texas literature. I was in Archer about twenty years ago, and then again around five years ago. It’s a time capsule of small Texas towns. The same car was still for sale at the service station. You two should do more of these joint efforts.