I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt by Brian T. Atkinson, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt

I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt

by Brian T. Atkinson
     
 

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The writer of such influential songs as “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “If I Needed You,” and “For the Sake of the Song,” Townes Van Zandt exerted an influence on at least two generations of Texas musicians that belies his relatively brief, deeply troubled life. Indeed, Van Zandt has influenced

Overview


The writer of such influential songs as “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “If I Needed You,” and “For the Sake of the Song,” Townes Van Zandt exerted an influence on at least two generations of Texas musicians that belies his relatively brief, deeply troubled life. Indeed, Van Zandt has influenced millions worldwide in the years since his death, and his impact is growing rapidly. Respected singer/songwriter John Gorka speaks for many when he says, “‘Pancho and Lefty’ changed—it unchained—my idea of what a song could be.”
 
In this tightly woven, intelligently written book, Brian T. Atkinson interviews both well-known musicians and up-and-coming artists to reveal, in the performers’ own words, how their creative careers have been shaped by the life and work of Townes Van Zandt. Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett are just a few of the established musicians who share their impressions of the breathtakingly beautiful tunes and lyrics he created, along with their humorous, poignant, painful, and indelible memories of witnessing Van Zandt’s rise and fall.
 
Atkinson balances the reminiscences of seasoned veterans with the observations of relative newcomers to the international music scene, such as Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Josh Ritter, and Scott Avett (the Avett Brothers), presenting a nuanced view of Van Zandt’s singular body of work, his reckless lifestyle, and his long-lasting influence. Forewords by “Cowboy” Jack Clement and longtime Van Zandt manager and friend Harold F. Eggers Jr. open the book, and each chapter begins with an introduction in which Atkinson provides context and background, linking each interviewee to Van Zandt’s legacy.
 
Historians, students, and fans of all music from country and folk to rock and grunge will find new insights and recall familiar pleasures as they read I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt.

Editorial Reviews

Joe Nick Patoski

"When I got to Austin in 1973, the songwriter's songwriter was Townes Van Zandt. It's been that way ever since. As each and every songwriter in Brian Atkinson's wonderful book attests to, it's all for the sake of the song."--Joe Nick Patoski, author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire

Barry Mazor

“Atkinson takes testimony from the right people—those close enough to Townes Van Zandt in his best days to be there at the telling moments, and some moved by him later and able to talk about it—and comes away with a memorable, telling, often funny group portrait. Commendably, I’ll Be Here in the Morning celebrates the sporadically brilliant, artful song maker and intellect Van Zandt was at his best, and avoids further romanticizing the driven, sadly self-destructive man lurking behind the songs.”--Barry Mazor, journalist and author, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers
Hank Williams III

“Townes Van Zandt got about as deep as you can get. He was an amazing songwriter, so sharp and sophisticated. He could say really hard things in a very simple way that makes you feel connected to him. That’s why there are a lot of comparisons to my grandfather.”--Hank Williams III
Pop Matters

"I'll Be Here in the Morning stands as an affectionate look at Van Zandt that doesn't fall into the trap of romanticizing the reason he needs to be remembered posthumously in the first place."--Andrew Gilstrap, Pop Matters

— Andrew Gilstrap

CMT.com

"Townes remains endlessly fascinating as we trace his fatalistic plunge into self-destruction, as he all the while leaves great songs in his wake."--CMT.com

Cleveland.com

"Brian T. Atkinson...spent nine years coaxing music veterans to explain why Van Zandt remains revered as one of the best songwriters in country-music history."--Chuck Yarborough, Cleveland.com

— Chuck Yarborough

Austin 360

"...Austin journalist Brian T. Atkinson has compiled an oral history of Van Zandt's life, work and ongoing influence by talking to peers who knew him intimately..."--John T. Davis, Austin 360

— John T. Davis

The Tennesean

"In the book's pages, Van Zandt emerges as a man of limitless tale
— Peter Cooper

Telegraph.co.uk

"...sharp and interesting profiles of all the musicians interviewed...the result is candid and insightful..."--Martin Chilton, Telegraph.co.uk

— Martin Chilton

CHOICE

"...fascinating anecdotes and testimonials from 40 individuals, material that attests to Van Zandt's widespread influence and popularity..."--R.D. Cohen, emeritus of Indiana University Northwest, CHOICE

— R.D. Cohen

Craig Hillis

"My friend and fellow musician, Professor Craig Clifford at Tarleton State University, ranks Townes Van Zandt at the top of his list of 'Ruthlessly Poetic Songwriters.' This insightful phrase truly captures the essence of Townes, his work, and his legacy. Brian Atkinson brilliantly brings the term, 'Ruthlessly Poetic,' to life and into context with his new biography of Townes, I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt."--Craig Hillis, Austin musician and Musicologist

Pop Matters - Andrew Gilstrap

"I'll Be Here in the Morning stands as an affectionate look at Van Zandt that doesn't fall into the trap of romanticizing the reason he needs to be remembered posthumously in the first place."--Andrew Gilstrap, Pop Matters

Cleveland.com - Chuck Yarborough

"Brian T. Atkinson...spent nine years coaxing music veterans to explain why Van Zandt remains revered as one of the best songwriters in country-music history."--Chuck Yarborough, Cleveland.com

Austin 360 - John T. Davis

"...Austin journalist Brian T. Atkinson has compiled an oral history of Van Zandt's life, work and ongoing influence by talking to peers who knew him intimately..."--John T. Davis, Austin 360

The Tennesean - Peter Cooper

"In the book's pages, Van Zandt emerges as a man of limitless talent and innate curiosity, a man of great kindness, intellect and gentility but also of unfathomable excesses. Those who knew him the best and loved him the most weight in with clear-eyed honesty."--Peter Cooper, The Tennesean

Telegraph.co.uk - Martin Chilton

"...sharp and interesting profiles of all the musicians interviewed...the result is candid and insightful..."--Martin Chilton, Telegraph.co.uk

CHOICE - R.D. Cohen

"...fascinating anecdotes and testimonials from 40 individuals, material that attests to Van Zandt's widespread influence and popularity..."--R.D. Cohen, emeritus of Indiana University Northwest, CHOICE

East Texas Historical Journal - L. Patrick Hughes

"It does...shed additional light on one of Texas' most baffling but gifted musicians...an interesting work with its own...impact."--L. Patrick Hughes, East Texas Historical Journal
The Great Plains Quarterly - Chuck Vollan

" By interviewing such a wide range of singers and songwriters, Atkinson sought to put Van Zandt into context of the evoloving left wing of country music. Atkinson shows how Van Zandt's comtemporaries saw him and felt his influence, as well as the way his unusually literate lyrics influenced new genrations of musicians."-- Chuck Vollan, Department of History and Political Science, South Dakota State University
Library Journal
This examination of the songwriting influence of Townes Van Zandt (1944–97) on musicians of varying styles and different generations joins two recent biographies of the singer-songwriter (Robert Earl Hardy's A Deeper Blue and John Kruth To Live's To Fly). Journalist Atkinson interviews both contemporaries and younger devotees of Van Zandt's work—from Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett to Adam Duritz and Josh Ritter—who discuss Van Zandt's songs, writing, and techniques and relate their own experiences with him and his music. Atkinson provides an introductory and contextual background piece for each interviewee before presenting the full text of the discussion, and this approach provides insight into many of today's most celebrated and revered singer-songwriters by way of their recollections and thoughts about Van Zandt. VERDICT Fans of Van Zandt and followers of Americana music will appreciate the informative and analytical approach to both the songs of Van Zandt and the many artists represented here. Recommended for extensive popular music collections.—Jim Collins, Morristown-Morris Twp. Lib., NJ

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781603445269
Publisher:
Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
11/30/2011
Series:
John and Robin Dickson Series in Texas Music, sponsored by the Center for Texas Music History, Texas State University
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,208,250
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

I'll Be Here in the Morning

The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt


By Brian T. Atkinson

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 Brian T. Atkinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-526-9



CHAPTER 1

Guy Clark


It's goodbye to all my friends; it's time to go again Think of all the poetry and the picking down the line —TVZ, "To Live's To Fly," from High, Low and In Between


Guy Clark's autumnal renaissance arcs further toward his folk-singer roots with every measure. The legendary songwriter's earthy Grammy-nominated album Somedays the Song Writes You (2009), which includes a version of Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," liberates unforeseen introspection ("Somedays You Write the Song") and trademark narratives ("Hemingway's Whiskey") with minimalist production. Clark confirms a frequently told story about the popular Van Zandt song: "Townes was living with Susanna and me in the early 1970s. One morning, he woke up and picked up a guitar and laid a piece of paper on his leg and proceeded to sing ['If I Needed You']. I went, 'Wow, where'd you come up with that?' He said, 'I dreamed it last night. I dreamed the whole song, the melody and everything, rolled over and wrote it down, and went back to sleep.'"

Van Zandt met his closest friend Guy Clark, who was born November 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, while both were working the Houston folk club circuit in the mid-1960s. Clark soon joined the Peace Corps and later moved between Houston, San Francisco, and Southern California, where he built Dobros at the Dopyera brothers' Long Beach guitar factory. In 1971, Clark signed a songwriting contract with RCA's Sunbury Music and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Susanna Clark, an artist and successful songwriter in her own right ("I'll Be Your San Antone Rose," "Easy from Now On," and "Come from the Heart," among others). An accomplished luthier, Clark has continued to build guitars in his home workshop for the past four decades.

Townes Van Zandt, who served as best man at Guy and Susanna Clark's wedding on songwriter Mickey Newbury's houseboat in early 1972, sporadically lived with the couple for extended periods throughout the 1970s. "Townes and I had a bottle of vodka [at the wedding] and got as shitfaced as we could till we got back to the dock," Clark says. "We got back in the car and went back to our house, and he was there for eight months. We were as close as you could get, closer than brothers." Guy Clark and Van Zandt continually fueled each other's creative fires. "The inspiration was not to be like Townes, but to be able to find that place within yourself to write," says Clark, who called Van Zandt "the Van Gogh of country music." Van Zandt acknowledged their bond in the song "Pueblo Waltz." "If I have to go, I won't be long / Maybe we'll move to Tennessee," he sings. "Leave these Texas blues behind / See Susanna and Guy."

Guy Clark played an important role in reshaping Nashville's songwriting community. With strong connections to the Austin-based progressive country scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Clark (along with fellow Texan Kris Kristofferson) helped push traditional country music themes beyond cheating and drinking and into more literate and meditative narrative storytelling. Clark's major-label debut album Old No. 1 (1975), widely considered one of the era's defining collections and a primary influence on younger songwriters such as Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt, includes two songs made popular by Jerry Jeff Walker—Clark's "instant classic" "L.A. Freeway" and the tribute to his grandmother's "wildcatter boyfriend," "Desperados Waiting for a Train."

Each tune displays Clark's trademark ability to deliver the buoyant melody in workaday language. "Pack up all your dishes / Make note of all good wishes," he sings on "L.A. Freeway." "Say goodbye to the landlord for me / That son of a bitch has always bored me." "Guy does this better than anybody, writing something very specific and detailed in his own life, yet it has universal meaning," says Lyle Lovett, whose career Clark helped launch in the mid-1980s. "You take more from Guy's songs every time you listen and go farther in."

Some music critics consider Jerry Jeff Walker's version of "L.A. Freeway" one of the greatest all-time country music singles. However, "Desperados Waiting for a Train" better exhibits Clark's keen eye for sketching strength in vulnerability, a recurrent theme especially in portraits of independent women. Early peaks such as "Rita Ballou," "Better Days," and "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere," as well as later efforts such as "Arizona Star," "Sis Draper," and "Dancin' Days" all portray flawed yet determined heroines. One shelter for battered women has employed "Better Days" as its theme song.

Although Clark earned moderate success as a singer in his own right—charting "Fools for Each Other" (1979), "The Partner Nobody Chose" (1981), and "Homegrown Tomatoes" (1983), also a hit for John Denver in 1989—he has arguably had his greatest impact as a songwriter, penning hits for others. Several major singers including Johnny Cash ("Texas 1947," "The Last Gunfighter Ballad"), David Allen Coe ("Texas 1947," "Desperados Waiting for a Train"), and Bobby Bare ("New Cut Road") have had success with Clark tunes. Ricky Skaggs took Clark's "Heartbroke" to the top of Billboard's country charts in 1982. Many others including Vince Gill ("Oklahoma Borderline"), the Highwaymen ("Desperados Waiting for a Train"), Jimmy Buffett ("Boats to Build," "Cinco de Mayo in Memphis"), Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson ("Out in the Parking Lot"), and Kenny Chesney ("Hemingway's Whiskey") continue the tradition.

By the time his album Better Days appeared in 1983, Clark's vivid vignettes had long established him as one of Nashville's most highly regarded lyricists. "Guy's is a really true, honest voice," says singer Ryan Bingham, who won an Academy Award for cowriting "The Weary Kind" with producer T-Bone Burnett for the 2010 Crazy Heart soundtrack. "His songs will always be around for hundreds of years." Although music critics may have overused the word "craftsman" to describe Clark's precise writing, several albums, including Texas Cookin' (1976), Guy Clark (1978), and The South Coast of Texas (1981), seem to validate that term.

Guy Clark closed out his major label years with Boats to Build (1992) and Dublin Blues (1995), two critically praised albums on Asylum Records. Many songs such as "Baton Rouge," "Boats to Build," "The Cape," and "Dublin Blues" became standards in Clark's live repertoire, and Van Zandt recorded "Dublin Blues" on his stark collection The Highway Kind (1997). However, the emotional masterwork perhaps was not tested enough for Clark's Keepers—A Live Recording (1997). Instead, he largely shaped the concert album around his back catalogue with songs such as "L.A. Freeway," "Heartbroke," "Let Him Roll," "Homegrown Tomatoes," and other "greatest hits."

In 1998, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Guy Clark with its Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding accomplishments as a songwriter, recording artist, and mentor in the field of country music.

Meanwhile, Keepers issued in Clark's vital second act as an independent artist. Each following album—starting with Cold Dog Soup (1999) and The Dark (2002) on Sugar Hill Records—recalls his folk beginnings more directly than the last. Townes Van Zandt has played an integral role posthumously. While Clark occasionally recorded Van Zandt tunes throughout early albums (for instance, "Don't You Take It Too Bad," "No Deal," and "To Live's To Fly"), he has purposefully included one each on The Dark ("Rex's Blues"), 2006's Grammy-nominated Workbench Songs ("No Lonesome Tune"), and Somedays the Songs Write You.

Townes Van Zandt might as well have written the latter album's anchor about his friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. Consider "If I Needed You" purely as a devotional absent desire. "If you needed me, I would come to you," Van Zandt sings. "I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain." "There's something so sweet and genuine and unaffected about it," Guy Clark says. "I guess because he dreamed it. He wasn't posing. I like Loop and Lil in the lyric. Those were his parakeets that he'd carry in the inside pocket of his jacket. Steve Earle does it pretty good, but I'm always changing his songs. I was always like, 'Man, if you'd just change this one word, it'd be so good.'"

* * *

Guy Clark

The first time I met Townes, he was with Jerry Jeff Walker. There was a little public radio show in Houston that a friend of mine put on in his living room. Townes and Jerry Jeff came to the taping one night. I liked Townes. We kept running into one another in Houston, and we just became friends. I liked his sense of humor mostly. He was the funniest son of a bitch I ever met in my whole life, and he was incredibly bright, maybe one of the smartest people I've been around, except maybe besides Susanna. That's why they were such good friends. They're off the chart with their IQs.

Townes had written about two songs when I'd met him. I think maybe they were "Waitin' Around to Die" and "I'll Be Here in the Morning." Houston was a bunch of people who liked folk songs. It's been described as the "big folk scare of the '60s." It was people of a like mind just trying to find a place to play. The Jester Lounge was a little earlier than Sand Mountain. The Jester was a bar, what they call in Texas a "pressure cooker club." They have a big, high wooden fence around the back so women could come down in the afternoon and park behind and go in these bars. They'd put their dinner in the pressure cooker for their husbands, and then go drink all afternoon. That's what it originally was, but then the guy who owned it decided he wanted to capitalize on folk music. There were seven or eight different people who played there all the time. Townes got there kind of in the middle or toward the end of it. Sand Mountain, on the other hand, was a coffee house run by Mrs. Carrick. She was pretty cool, but we were always sneaking in wine and doing things we weren't supposed to do.

I think Bob Dylan was a big influence on Townes and me both, but also equally Woody Guthrie. We were both fans of Lightnin' Hopkins, but especially Townes. Lightnin' was a pretty fair songwriter himself. We were able to go see him play quite a bit in Houston, and we played on bills together. You know, he was a real songwriter, not like kids writing songs at home. Lightnin' was the real deal.

I loved Townes's use of the English language, the words he chose. They were really good, really clean, well educated. Plus, he was writing about some pretty weird stuff, and a lot of it I still don't get. Every time Townes and I started thinking we were pretty hot shit, we'd get a tape of Dylan Thomas reading his own work and put it on. That'd put a stop to that shit. From the time I can remember, we were both fans of Dylan Thomas. It was kind of hard to get his work that was recorded in the early 1950s before he died. It's just breathtaking to hear Dylan Thomas read that stuff. It's far out. Of course, Townes's songs stand up against literature. That depends on your definition of literature, but mine is Dylan Thomas.

Townes was really at the top of his game at the Old Quarter in the '70s. He was playing great, he was singing great, he was writing great. He was fairly sane. He was just really good. That two-volume Live at the Old Quarter set is still the best recording of Townes. He was a really good guitar player, especially on those fast songs. He had that little click in the rhythm that he could get going. That's really hard to do. He wasn't necessarily trying to be a guitar player, but he was. He was a pretty good blues player, and he played the songs that he wrote really, really well.

I always thought Townes was done a disservice in the way his records were produced over the years. I don't think anything even comes close to a live performance like Live at the Old Quarter. However those studio albums were being made, that really high quality part of Townes never cut through. There was always too much other stuff going on for me. He cared, but it just got very unwieldy, the parts that I saw. That's the way it was. I would go hang out in the recording studio once in a while, but not really a lot. I kind of stayed away, but everybody seemed to have a good time.

Songwriting never was a competitive sport for Townes and I. I couldn't wait to play him my new song and get his approval nor he me. Townes was always calling me up and saying, "Man, listen to this." He'd have a new song to read over the phone to me. I would do the same. We respected one another and that was a good way to play it for whichever one of us it was, but Townes was a real snob. He didn't like anything. He could keep his mouth shut louder than anybody, but I liked everything thing he did. I talked to Townes on the phone a couple times when he called [near the end of his life], and he read me the lyrics to "Sanitarium Blues."

I thought "Don't You Take It Too Bad" is just one of the best songs I've ever heard. I think it was his favorite, too. There's something about it that's just exactly right. He had a great sense of humor and wrote really funny talking blues like "Talking Karate Blues" and "Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues." The songs I've done are usually ones that were written when we were hanging out together, and I've known them since the day they were written, like "No Lonesome Tune." I always like doing one of his songs on my records, because I think the more people who hear them, the better off we all are. I do the songs I like of his, and I like a lot of them.

Some songs I can't do, because they're too dark, too scary, pretty dark stuff that I'm not in the mood to say or to sing. It's just a matter of taste. "To Live's To Fly" is a wonderful song. There's a couple versesin "Two Girls" that I think are just far out and quote all the time: "The clouds didn't look like cotton / They didn't even look like clouds / I was underneath the weather / All my friends look like a crowd / The swimming hole was full of rum / And I tried to find out why / All I learned was this, my friend / You gotta learn to swim before you fly." I thought that was pretty.

I think Townes loved [Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson's chart-topping version of] "Pancho and Lefty." He was very pleased that they would do it. We're in the business of writing songs, and it's always nice to be able to support yourself with your artistic endeavors. It means that you can keep doing it. You've gotta have money to live.

I think we tried to cowrite once when we were real drunk, but we never did really even think about it. It never seemed to be the right thing to do for either one of us. Why, I don't know. We could just write songs by ourselves, I guess. I wasn't into cowriting at that time. I started that much later. Townes was in and out of Nashville quite a bit, but he was a big part of the scene in the '70s. He wasn't living here permanently, just in spurts of a year or two, but everybody knew how good that stuff was.

On the pro side of living with Townes, he's very neat. He picked up after himself, made his bed every morning, would cook breakfast and wash any dish that was laying around. I mean, he went to military school, you know. You could walk into his motel room out on the road and everything was perfect. The bed was made, and you could bounce a quarter off it. For the rest of his life being such chaos, I thought that was pretty funny. On the con side, Townes would bring some really unsavory characters around, some guy he met at a bar or a girlfriend. You know, just unacceptable to me.

He would come home from the airport with people during that period after he had been our best man.... So we're all in this little house in Nashville, and Townes just comes home from there and goes, "Hey, man, meet my new friends, you know, they can sleep in ..." And Susanna's just, "What in the fuck have I got myself in now?" Or he'd come home with the news editor from the Baltimore Sun, who just worships the fucking boots Townes stands in, or some wino who had just gotten divorced. That was just a part of having Townes be part of your life. He saw this beautiful, good thing in each one of them.

Townes thought he was better than Chevy Chase at pratfalls. I mean he really did, and it got to the point where that was part of his show. He'd act like he lost his balance or he was too drunk to stand up and fall with his guitar on his strap and roll and come back on his feet. You know, if he had to do two sets, he'd do it twice. He seriously entertained being that quality acrobat, but his lifestyle didn't support it. He always wound up flat on his back [holding] his guitar up there. "I didn't break the guitar. I think my hip's shattered, but the guitar's okay." I mean he'd really do it, and he did hurt himself a couple of times.

One time we were in Madison, Wisconsin, and Townes played first. He was drunk, and he was sitting in a chair. He was playing, crying, singing, and telling stories, and right at the very end, you know, he just fell over backward in the chair and just hit the floor. He couldn't walk, but he had the guitar up. "I saved the guitar, man." Doctors were there, and I've got to go on right now. Townes is in the dressing room, and the doctor came in. "How many fingers can you see?" I made sure the dressing room door was open, and Townes is just kind of laying there in a daze, and I just walked up and went, "If I had no place to fall and I needed to, could I count on you?" I mean, that was our sense of humor. It was, "Okay, man, you're that fucked up, you ought to laugh a bit."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from I'll Be Here in the Morning by Brian T. Atkinson. Copyright © 2012 Brian T. Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

BRIAN T. ATKINSON writes frequently for the Austin American-Statesman and has contributed to American Songwriter, No Depression, Maverick Country, Relix, Paste, Texas Music, and Lone Star Music magazines, among others. He lives in Austin.

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