Days, up and down they come Like rain on a conga drum Forget most, remember some But don’t turn none away Everything is not enough Nothing is too much to bear Where you been is good and gone All you keep is the getting there To live is to fly Low and high So shake the dust off of your wings And the sleep out of your eyes
-From “To Live is to Fly” by Townes Van Zandt
On a gray January day in 1997, I drove to work. My commute was easy, 15 or 20 minutes through the suburbs northwest of Portland, Oregon. I turned the radio to KBOO and my favorite show, Music from the True Vine — a once-a-week audio stew made of mostly bluegrass and old-time music. It was really the only radio I listened to; it was CDs, tapes or vinyl otherwise. But, this three hour block each Saturday morning was always refreshing. You’d hear new traditional acts, old classics, newgrass, folk, and old-timey stuff that blurred lines around Americana genres — but still all firmly rooted in the high lonesome sound created by Bill Monroe five or six decades earlier.
When I would tune into this show and catch the middle of a song partway through the program, I was usually pleased, often delighted, and rarely disappointed — they played some great tunes! That morning, however, I was floored. They were playing Townes Van Zandt.
Townes was born in 1944 in Texas, and spent his life bouncing around Colorado, Montana, and the Lone Star State. At the age of 12 he got a guitar for Christmas, having seen Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show a couple months before. He was a bright, athletic kid, born to a wealthy Texas family. He attended college for a few years, eventually joining a pre-law program. But Townes had some serious struggles from a young age — during his youth and college years, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depression. He endured invasive treatments for those conditions, including shock therapy that reportedly caused memory loss.
Townes self-medicated with drugs and alcohol from an early age. He dropped out of college and tried to join the Air Force, but was turned down due to his mental illness. Inspired by singing, songwriting, guitar-picking musical heroes like Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Doc Watson, he set out to make a living playing and singing in local bars, playing covers of his idols’ songs. His father encouraged him to write his own material, which he began to do in the late '60s.
Van Zandt was astonishingly prolific in the late 1960s and early 70s, cranking out an album a year. He never "hit it big," and lived mostly in cheap motels and trailer homes, and slept on friends’ couches. He was in and out of rehab many times, drugs and alcohol ravaging his body, killing his voice, and stifling his talent over time.
His recordings brought little commercial success, but were well-received by critics and a small but loyal fan base in the folk music community. The response reminds me of Velvet Underground’s — they sold a painfully small amount of records, but seemingly inspired every one of their early listeners to go on and make music of their own. The folk and outlaw country artists loved Townes’ stuff, and his songs were recorded by many legends — Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris to name just a few. Steve Earle, one of America’s finest singer-songwriters in his own right, is quoted as saying that Townes was “the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
That’s a bold proclamation. Even Earle himself has backtracked a bit on that statement, as the sheer volume and genius of Dylan’s work is unparalleled. However, I will echo that Van Zandt, at his best, is truly transcendent, his poetry raw and dripping with emotion; by turns lifting you high, knocking you out, burying you deep.
I was introduced to Townes’ music in 1991, when I bought a used tape at a Utah record store for $2.99. Live at the Old Quarter is a double album recording of a set he played at a Houston club in 1975. I picked it up because his name sounded familiar, and I recognized nearly every one of the 25 songs on the album. Pure economics was a factor too—that’s like a dime a song! Some of the tracks, like “Nine Pound Hammer” were old traditional covers I had loved to sing myself. Many, like “White Freightliner Blues” were standards at bluegrass jams or shows I’d attended, though I was unsure of the original songwriter’s identity. A few of them, like “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty” were songs I had loved through other artists’ recordings, but had never heard Townes sing them. I figured at less than three bucks the album was a pretty good gamble.
Imagine my surprise when I learned he had written darn near all of those songs! The album was a treasure chest, and it became a time machine, best friend and personal therapist all in one double length cassette case package. It seemed every mood or emotion I ever had or felt, good bad or ugly, could be understood, relived and finally lifted by a quiet listen to this warts-and-all recording of a small show Townes played in the summer of 1975. I quickly became a fan, then a disciple, and ultimately an evangelist for Townes’ talent, sharing my affinity for his songs with every music lover I knew. I picked up most of his albums, but the polished, occasionally-over-produced studio records and other live albums don’t live up to the stripped bare, pure listening experience found on Live at the Old Quarter.
Goodbye to all my friends It’s time to go again Think of all the poetry And the pickin’ down the line
I’ll miss the system here The bottom’s low and the treble’s clear But it don’t pay to think too much On things you leave behind
I may be gone But it won’t be long I’ll be bringin’ back the melodies And rhythm that I find
Rolling through my regular route that Saturday morning in ’97, the routine of my day was shaken. As I tuned in to the bluegrass show and heard Van Zandt singing, I was delighted — what an unexpected treat. I sang along, my day brightened already — that’s the way to start your workday! Even better, the radio played another Townes song; a double-shot with no DJ commentary to disrupt the magical moment. A few minutes later, I listened to Townes begin singing a third song as I pulled into the parking lot, and my heart sank. “Townes is gone,” I said out loud. Tears welled up in my eyes, and the announcer somberly dedicated the show to Townes. He confirmed what my heart knew — this generally unknown icon, one of my musical heroes, had died three days earlier, way too young at the age of 52.
Ultimately, his drug and alcohol abuse — the endless descending cycles of rehab, detox, and relapse — intertwined with the mental illness and hard living Van Zandt endured for decades, caught up to him. The blues-soaked songs that had brought such joy to so many, including the depressed and mentally ill, could not save him. It still pains and perplexes me — how could a soul that produced so much intelligence, wit, humor, depth and light have been the same one that was tortured so cruelly, and ultimately destroyed by such darkness? I’m not sure we can ever fully know the answer to that question in this life.
What I do know, is that Townes Van Zandt brightened countless days for me. I was lifted up often, whether picking “White Freightliner Blues” at a bluegrass jam, singing “Pancho and Lefty” with my Dad, listening to Emmylou Harris sing “If I Needed You,” or hearing Van Zandt himself playing my favorite of his songs, “To Live Is To Fly.” Throughout that day in January, his words ran through my mind, long after Townes stopped singing. And once again he pulled me from melancholy to grateful, helping me dust off my wings and get on with the work. Rest in peace, Townes. You are missed.
We all got holes to fill Them holes are all that’s real Some fall on you like a storm Sometimes you dig your own
The choice is yours to make Time is yours to take Some dive into the sea, Some toil upon the stone
To live is to fly Low and high So shake the dust off of your wings And the sleep out of your eyes Shake the dust off of your wings And the tears out of your eyes