Townes Van Zandt

John Townes Van Zandt: Mar 7 1944 –Jan 1 1997 aged 52 Townes Van Zandt

Of the myriad of over 3,000 gigs I put on at The Albert over a 26 year period many are forgotten in the mists. One series of gigs (mid 90’s) that keeps springing back to mind were a little foreign to me at the time and probably didn’t mean as much to me then; but something about a couple of those still stick in the mind.
It was a brief foray into putting on Country music that was instigated by Kelvin Henderson a local Radio Bristol presenter; he had previously had a quite successful career as a musician and championed Country music for decades including in his local “My Kind of Country” show for the BBC.

Kelvin had been bringing top US Country musicians to Bristol for many years when he lost the venue he was using. As I was also presenting on the same station doing Jazz with Keith Warmington, we were introduced to each other by Keith initially, in the BBC bar. He knew of the jazz and acoustic music I was promoting and asked if we would do some of the artists he had already booked for the venue he could no longer use.
I tentatively agreed but we had to do them on different nights to the jazz (Sundays) and acoustic (Wednesdays) so I think we ended up doing some on a Tuesday and some on Thursdays.

Many of the artists proved amazing to host, but not many were very well attended despite Kelvin plugging them to death on his show. The Sawtooth Mountain Boys a Bluegrass band, solo guitar picking legend Dan Crary were great nights musically.

The one that made a lasting impression was with Townes Van Zandt, a name I profess not to have ever come across or recognised. Turned out he was one of Americas finest ever Country Music songwriters...Ever!!
I think we only had about 15 folk in for that night: he turned up bedraggled; a face weathered by years of drug and alcohol abuse that I recognised from a wall picture in the bar of Chet Baker the jazz trumpeter who had been down the same road. He was thin as a rake, quietly spoken and when he did speak it was short and sweet.

Townes oldChet Baker
His voice was not in good shape either, though it seems he never was a songbird. His guitar playing was good without brilliance, but there was something about the presence of the guy that you could not ignore.

Van Zandt himself, never had anything resembling a hit in his nearly 30-year recording career — he had a hard enough time simply keeping his records in print. Nonetheless, he was widely respected and admired as one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation. The long list of singers who’ve covered his songs includes Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (who had a number one country hit with “Pancho and Lefty” in 1983), Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Hoyt Axton, Bobby Bare, the Tindersticks, and the Cowboy Junkies.
Such gems as “For the Sake of the Song,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Pancho and Lefty,” and “If I Needed You” plus many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles.

“Pancho and Lefty” is considered his most enduring and well-known song. Van Zandt first recorded it for his 1972 album. Emmylou Harris then covered the song for her 1977 album, Luxury Liner. The song became a number one country hit in 1983 when Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Steve Earle performs the song on his 2009 album Townes, which consists of songs written by van Zandt, Earle’s friend and mentor.

Earle & Van Zandt

Van Zandt tells that he wrote the song in Dallas about two Mexican bandits he saw on TV; 2 weeks previous, Pancho Villa and his mate ‘Lefty’.
He said is just came of out of the blue without even thinking about it. He thought it weird and had come from another place. He didn’t even understand it (the lyrics) himself, for many years.

Many years later something weird happened; he related a story of traveling to a gig and being pulled over by two cops (one white and one Hispanic) in Brenham, Texas, doing 67mph in 50 zone.

The Burton County officers asked for all his details, which he didn’t have.
They asked him where he was heading and what he did, to identify himself.
He told them he was a songwriter heading to a gig….”Oh, and I wrote the song Pancho & Lefty”, he added
The two officers looked stunned and were disbelieving, “No…. I did write that song… really”
The officers told him they weren’t doubting that; it was just that their call sign from the Sheriff’s Dept: to their car had always been Pancho & Lefty??? He got off the speeding ticket…..but he got a fine for not having an inspection ticket and noting his address change, I suppose they had to get him for something!
Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time

Emmylou Harris & Willie Nelson both had massive hits with “Pancho and Lefty”, here they are dueting on the song. with Lyle Lovett –  Live in Austin, Texas, 2014
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-sASHRv2mM (4.33 mins)

townes-vanTownes Van Zandt playing a medley of his hit!  “Pancho & Lefty” played at Uncle Seymour’s place, taken from a DVD called Heartworn Highways in 1975.
http://tinyurl.com/pcg69xo (4.53 mins)

Here are some tales about Townes from people who knew him, if you don’t like bad language, please don’t listen to some of these (Earle & Clark bits)
Kris Kristofferson talking about Townes van Zandt
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qk6KNa_jLWY (1.18 mins)
Steve Earle talking about TVZ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy86AY5Nf7I (5.23 mins)
Emmylou Harris talking about TVZ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOdaj8AxhlI (2.22 mins)
Guy Clark talking about TVZ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zb7LVzx_twU (4.52 mins)





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