“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
~ Steve Earle
I moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in early January 2010. Moving might be too glorifying of a word, meaning I had $30, a guitar, and a bag of clothes. I was re-moving myself from a failed relationship while finishing a batch of songs, some of which would appear on my debut release Appalachian Travels – hence the name of my radio show on Radio Bristol. (Thanks, Bill Edwards!)
My long-time friend and fellow tunesmith Allun Cormier and I shared a three-story chalet style house at end of Glen Road. The two houses there were owned by the original operator of The Hitchin’ Post, a now-defuct Bristol honky tonk, and they had been the stopping-place of the bands traveling through town in the 1970s and 1980s. One could literally sense the energy the minute you walked through the door.
One afternoon in February, I recorded a song I had just finished on my phone and sent it to Allun – it was called “The Marrying Song.” He immediately replied: “That sounds like a Townes Van Zandt song.” Now, as a child I remember Wille Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cut of “Pancho & Lefty,” a tune written by Townes and released in 1972. However, this was as deep as my knowledge of Townes went. I had heard the name numerous times, but never went down the rabbit hole to learn more. Boy, but what a rabbit hole to find!
I was heavily getting into Texas songwriters Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and the like. In press interviews, all of these amazing songwriters kept referencing Townes as one of their biggest influences, Clark more than any of them. Allun brought home a copy of the 2004 documentary Be Here to Love Me, giving me great insight into the tragic life of the late, great Townes Van Zandt. I, myself, was deep in the bottle and could relate in more ways than one.
I started with the import compilation Legend – The Very Best of Townes Van Zandt, which I picked up at our local record store, Sessions 27. I kept it on repeat for a couple of weeks, allowing the material to fully saturate every molecule of my being. Minimal production, poetic lyrics, sparse guitar, all of it hit me in the right way. I immediately understood what all these great songwriters were talking about. Townes was the real deal. I soon picked up a copy of Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, wanting to hear Townes in his natural environment – a live setting with only him, his songs, and his guitar. Townes performs flawlessly, exploring his catalogue while showcasing his own influences – Merle Travis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Rev. Gary Davis’s arrangement of “Cocaine Blues.”
From squeaky bar stools to audience chatter, I could hear The Old Quarter and Townes’s performance breathe – listen in, and so can you.