Monday, March 7, 2011
From Writer's Almanac
It's the birthday of one of the great Texas troubadours and a legend in songwriting circles, Townes Van Zandt, born in Fort Worth (1944). He was born into wealthy oil family, and they moved around quite a bit when he was a young kid – to Minnesota, Colorado, and Illinois-- but he abandoned wealth for poetry and singing and living couch to couch. His focus was the words and the story. Though he never had a hit of his own, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took his song "Pancho and Lefty" all the way to No. 1 in 1983. Others recorded him too — Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, The Cowboy Junkies.
His friend Steve Earle famously said he was "the best songwriter in the whole world," adding, "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." To which Van Zandt was said to have replied: "I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table."
Years later, Earle recanted. He said, "When somebody's as good as Townes Van Zandt was and more people don't know about it, it's Townes's fault. Part of him didn't consider himself worthy of anything." Van Zandt died in 1997, at age 53.
It's been said that hearing a Van Zandt song "is like standing in front of a Van Gogh or a Renoir. You want to be able to access that part of any artist or writer or poet. ... They show you what a true artist is capable of doing."
The first verse of "Pancho and Lefty" (1972):
Living 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
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams