Commemoration: So Long Townes

By Alan Rhody

In the fall of 1970 I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, but I was in Edmonton, Alberta working on a television show called "Music 70." I was staying at the home of Russ and Sharleen Thornberry. Russ, who not only hosted the show and had chosen me to be a regular guest on the twenty-six show series for CFRN in Edmonton, but had also been my biggest champion in my new endeavors as a singer and songwriter.

One afternoon he pulled out an album called "Our Mother The Mountain" by a singer/writer named Townes Van Zandt. Russ, knowing the music that had inspired me to pursue my new career, knew I would like the music this Van Zandt was making. I not only liked it but played it repeatedly through the following week. There was one song I just had to learn. It was called "Tecumseh Valley," the sad tale of a miner's daughter who comes to find work in hard times and ends up tending bar and becoming a prostitute and eventually commits suicide. It is dark, but very beautiful. I sang it for years after that, every time I performed. I felt great when I'd sing it and people would ask me where it came from and I would tell them about this exciting song-poet I'd discovered. So it went with the songs of Townes Van Zandt who passed away on New Year's Day of this year. He was only 52.

As my life and career progressed and I traveled farther and wider, I found that his music had beaten me in spreading the news to so many other people and places. Then I later learned some of the songs of Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker and made the connection with Townes and the Texas songwriting movement of the sixties. This crowd also included Mickey Newbury, Butch Hancock, and others.

About six years later, while at some friends' home in Nashville on one of my early trips to Music City, I met a nineteen-year-old tequila-swilling, pot-smoking kid named Steve Earle, who for all his brashness was one of the most talented writers I'd come across. At this particular party we swapped songs as people did very often in those days, something sorely missing from the Nashville of today. Anyway, Steve played a brand new song called "The Devil's Right Hand" and hardly stopped talking about "Townes 'n' Guy" the whole evening.

Now some twenty-five years and countless parties, joints, bottles, shows, adventures and songs later, I still had not met one of my few true heroes in the songwriting world. I finally met Townes in the spring of 1995 down on the Gulf Coast of Florida and Alabama. The great deep-voiced obscure-by-choice singer and songwriter, Larry Jon Wilson, who was accompanying Townes on this particular road trip out from Texas introduced us.

I drove over to the condo they were staying in around mid-afternoon. Larry Jon and I sat and talked a few minutes and played a song or two for each other. Townes appeared from one of the bedrooms where he'd been resting. He shook my hand, was gracious, sat down and poured a full eight ounce glass of vodka and put a bottle of Diet Pepsi on the side. He offered me some, but I was fine with a beer I was sipping. He continued to drink several glasses full as I sat in amazement and realized this was a man in trouble.

His famous sense of humor and "pulling one's leg" was not lost on me. He was very humble and complimentary towards my music, which meant the world to me. I opened the show that night and took a seat to watch what I hoped was going to be a memorable evening with a living legend. It was, but in a sad, sad way. I couldn't help feeling bad for him, knowing his attempts to dry out and the deadly grip of alcohol he was under. This is a man who left withi his passing a family who loved him dearly, a legion of followers and friends who loved him as well. A man who left a legacy of music that some think is small, due to the limited number of his songs that found mass popularity, but in fact is very large.

He was working on his 16th album when he had to go in for hip surgery. I'm sure there are other songs unrecorded as well. I would hope they will all someday be available in a recorded collection as well as printed lyrical form. He was a man of mystery who, it seems, was very seldom happy.

After meeting and spending only a few hours around him, and though he was intoxicated, the spiritual way he looked at life was easily felt. Like a sad character from one of his own poignant compositions, he played and sang with a stumbling kind of grace. I thought about that day in 1970 when I first heard his voice and songs. I thought about all the traveling and at times, the self-induced suffering that we both had endured, he so much more than I. I heard his soul cry.

"Poncho And Lefty," "If I Needed You," "White Freightliner Blues," "Don't You Take It Too Bad," and finally "Tecumseh Valley," all striking pictures of life, are only a glimpse of what he left when his heart failed him while recuperating at home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, with his wife Jeanene.

Mickey Newbury, who cites Townes along with Stephen Foster, is one of hundreds of songwriters Townes influenced. A few of the others include Guy and Susanna Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and yes, Alan Rhody.

I like to think Townes Van Zandt lived his life the way he wanted to – free and easy, rambling, gambling, putting people on, philosophizing, and above all else, mastering the art of poetry and song. For he did it in a way few have ever done it or will ever do again.

Though his music will live on for a long, long time to come, I'll miss him terribly. It just won't feel the same knowing he's not out there on the road somewhere, which is where his true home was.

So long Townes.

Alan Rhody is a Louisville-born award-winning songwriter and painter who has made Nashville, TN his home for the past nineteen years. He may be reached at P.O., Box 121231. Nashville, TN 37212.