Townes and Guy: Songwriters You Should Know (Part II of II)

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Townes Van Zandt is the greatest American songwriter to have ever lived, period. As Steve Earle, a talented songwriter in his own right, put it, “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.”

(To Live is to Fly)

Like Guy Clark, Townes was a songwriter’s songwriter, a true poet. He was a little more commercially successful than Clark, though, blipping on the radar with his “Pancho and Lefty,” made famous by Willie Nelson. But most still don’t know who he is and why his music is magic.

(Pancho and Lefty

As with many songwriters, Townes lived a troubled life; his more troubled than most. Being institutionalized as a young man after purposely falling off a third story balcony to see what that moment before the fall would feel like. Receiving electro-shock therapy. Losing all memory of youth and adolescence. Living much of his life on someone else’s couch. Seasons in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina. Playing Russian roulette in front of dear friends. Riding horses. Womanizing. Loving. Partying. Abusing. Drinking until it killed him.But what a legacy.

(Waitin’ Around to Die)

At a first listen, Townes’ singing voice seems out of tune or flat, but over time it melds with his words and melodies to create a unique and heartfelt style all his own. His lyrics paint dark smoky rooms where gamblers, drunks, outlaws, lovers and transients (all Townes) live, love, kill, and ask forgiveness. They take us a-travelin’ and a-ramblin’ to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rockies, hills o’ golden, piles o’ poison, leavin’ family and friends behind, to hopefully return one day.

Loretta, I won’t be gone long,
Keep your dancin’ slippers on,
Keep me on your mind a while,
I’m comin’ home, I’m comin’ home.

His songs are ultimately about that longing for home, but the need for the road, that love of purity, but the need to destroy it, the longing for salvation, but the need to come back to the table for one more hand, the need to bet the house. And bet the house he did.

(Two Girls)

Like with all geniuses, those who loved him suffered for his talents. But, unlike others before and since, Townes knew he caused harm, was troubled by it, and wrote with that pain in his heart. It’s an exercise in masochism, but then again, much of his music is masochistic. Very rarely are we presented with the redemption that Townes promises.

He never comes home, leaving us standing on the porch with our dancing slippers on waiting for the man with the guitar on his back to appear somewhere along the horizon. To redeem us, and to be redeemed himself. But he never appears. So, we suffer for this sad man, but love him still, for his words swept us off our feet, made us dance, and almost saved us.

(If I Needed You)


Written by JustJake

April 1, 2008 at 8:42 pm

One Response

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  1. […] get me wrong, Bob Dylan is the second best lyricist ever (Townes Van Zandt being the first). But is the lyrics-cart being pulled by the rhythmic/melodic-horse? Can the lyrics drive the song? […]

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