with J. T. Van Zandt,
son of the late great Townes Van Zandt
by Richard Skanse
Five years after
Townes Van Zandt succumbed to a heat attack at the too-young
age of 52 and left this world on January 1, 1997, the incomparable
music he left behind remains the benchmark by which nearly all
modern day singer-songwriters of the folk and Americana persuasion
are measured. When critics bemoan the beer and Lone Star flag
waving obsession of too many a current quote-unquote Texas songwriter,
Van Zandts is invariably the first name cited when they
recall a time when the title signified a something altogether
more special. His contemporaries like Guy Clark, Butch Hancock
and Billy Joe Shaver are all given equal credit and respect,
but theyll be among the first to tell you that Van Zandts
gift was singular. As Shaver himself puts it with conviction,
As far as I was concerned, he was the best songwriter
that ever lived. And thats it.
Shaver, along with
Clark, Hancock (with the Flatlanders), Steve Earle, Willie Nelson,
Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams and a host of other
A-List songwriters take terms supporting that statement with
their uniformly excellent performances of some of Van Zandts
finest songs on the recently released Poet A Tribute
to Townes Van Zandt. Few, if any, all-star tribute albums have
likely ever been such a labor of love for all involved; with
the sole exception of newcomer Pat Haney (who holds his own
a stark reading of Waitin Round to Die), every
one of the artists on the album knew and loved Van Zandt first
hand, be it as a friend, a brave companion of the road, a mentor,
and in the case of John T. Van Zandt, a father.
J.T. Van Zandt,
32, is not a singer or songwriter by trade. Hes a wood
worker, with little to no interest in following in his fathers
footsteps (at least not yet). But its his album-closing
version of My Proud Mountains on Poet that brings
the listener closest to the heart of the man being celebrated.
Lend an ear to my singin, sings the son in
a voice all but indistinguishable from the fathers, cause
Ill be back no more.
Van Zandt was a
wanderer, and it probably speaks volumes that when J.T. speaks
of him he calls him by his first name. He wasn't really
present as a father figure, but he's given me a a lot I get
to hang onto, says J.T. He turned out to be much
more of a friend. We really enjoyed each other's company.
During the 90s, he often accompanied Van Zandt and his
road manager Harold Eggers on tour, the three of them piling
into an old white GMC pick-up dubbed The Colonel.
His memories of those road trips are bitter sweet, as his father
at that point had been reduced to a frequently unmanageable,
almost child-like state due to alcoholism. But on more than
one occasion J.T. also got a rare, first-hand look at Van Zandt
at his most vulnerable, human and magical. Herewith, he shares
some of his stories for the first time.
Was there any hesitation on your part when you were first
asked to be a part of the Poet tribute?
I didn't really
see my place on it [at first], but I think it's a case of where
if I hadn't have done it, I would have regretted it. Because
I have his guitar, and I use his guitar on the album, it just
became personal and I wanted to do it. I didn't have any emotional
problems with doing it. I've played at a few of his tributes,
and I've sat around with him finger picking, and I've played
with a lot of the other folks on the album just sitting around
and stuff. I think that I was maybe paranoid about some people
thinking I was using it as a launching pad, but I think I was
ignoring the truth, that if I got in the session it would be
really emotional, and it did.
Why did you pick
My Proud Mountains?
Townes spent a good
part of his childhood in Colorado, and I think some of his more
enjoyable childhood moments come from being up there and just
being in the wildlife. And when he went to college he went back
to Boulder University, or CU, and after he dropped out of college
he became like an outfitter so to speak -- he packed people's
supplies. He wasn't like an outfitter himself, he was just sort
of a wrangler that led horses and took supplies into the mountains
for people that were going into the mountains for expeditions
and stuff like that. He had a real love for the outdoors, but
after he started touring it just seemed like an impracticality
the type of life he led didn't allow him to really
take those kind of trips anymore. But I knew that down in his
heart, beneath the day-to-day struggles of being on the road,
that he hung onto that. I think he had a real ambition to escape
society. I really think that he would have loved to have lived
unknown out on a ranch and had a happy family and all that sort
of stuff up in the mountains somewhere. And he was able in that
song to me to sum up the experience for anyone who longs to
live in the mountains. And I spent a lot of time in Colorado
too, doing those things. When he was still around, I went up
there to become a fly fishing guide for a few seasons, and he
was just enthralled with the idea that I was doing that. He
was so super proud, and was telling all his friends on the road
that I was guiding fly fishing. And he really just sprung out
of character when he found out that I was starting to make wooden
boats, and some of the things that perhaps he wanted to do with
his life if it wasn't for the songwriting. So that song just
became really personal between he and I and I just felt like
it was the only song to do on the album.
a couple of months since the release of Poet. What are your
thoughts on how it came out?
It makes me feel
sorry for people that didnt get a chance to see Townes,
especially live. I can have two answers on this. As far as everyone
covering their songs, I think they did a great job. Its
obvious that theres kind of a tone and a mood to the album.
But compared to Townes versions, theyre all pretty
inadequate [Laughs]. Especially mine. For anyone that ever saw
Townes live, theres a different experience associated
with all of the songs. And all of the people that did songs
experienced that, and their versions were kind of a take on
that experience. Theres kind of an understanding among
people that knew Townes of how great he was and how special
the environment at one of these gigs was.
How old were
you when first started to appreciate your fathers music?
I think I appreciated
his guitar picking when I was young, because he was an incredible
guitar picker back then. He wore metal picks on all four of
his fingers and a thumb pick, and he could just play the piano
on the strings down there -- it would sound like a couple of
guitars. And on his early albums, they're kind of over produced,
but you can hear that his playing was phenomenal. As he got
older, he still could do it, but I think it was somewhat diminished
just from the drinking and traveling and all the tough years.
But at the beginning he was an outstanding fingerpicker. So
I immediately dug the music, and I think I started getting into
the lyrics when I was about sixteen. It was then that I started
understanding how wise he was. By twenty -- no, earlier than
twenty I think -- I knew that he was hot shit with a pen.
Would he ever
confide in you when he was writing? Share any insight into the
In the later touring
years of his life -- he toured right up to the end -- he was
it was a lighter subject, writing songs. He
was writing songs that were real plays on words, just extremely
dramatic like 'The Hole and "Marie, and he
would run phrases by you, kind of sharing. But when he was younger,
I think they just blitzed him out of nowhere and he just did
what he could to write down all those thoughts. He and my mom
had this small apartment, and there was this room in it that
was as small as the smallest closet, and most of the songs that
he wrote that were on his early albums were written in that
closet. His songs just started surfacing. No one witnessed any
of that. They were just all under Townes hat. His interpretation
of how he wrote them was that he was just sort of a medium for
all those songs like the songs were around before he
was, and he was just there when they popped out. That was just
the explanation everyone was given. He never gave a straight
answer on where they came from. Except for If I Needed
You. Till his dying day, he swore that he woke up from
a dream and wrote that entire song down. He stuck by his guns
on that, that he woke up from a dream knowing all the words
and the chord changes. That seems pretty bizarre, but Ive
been in much more bizarre situations with him than that, to
What do you think
his songs meant to him after he wrote them?
If one of his songs
was playing in a room, maybe after a show or at some kind of
situation where he was being celebrated and present, he would
demand sometimes to a pretty freaky, violent level
that it be turned off. He would remove the sound of his music
from any setting if he was there and trying to function as a
normal person. It would be shocking to people, but if I heard
a Townes song come on and Townes was around, it was basically
a count-down to watch him run through a hallway and charge to
the record player, maybe even destroying it to get it off of
Why was that?
I really dont
know. But truthfully, his music, his songs zapped him into a
place that he didnt necessarily want to be in. You didnt
have to get it or not, it just had to stop. You had to get that
Would he react
the same to hearing his music if it was a cover by someone else,
like Emmylou Harris If I Needed You or Willie
and Merle doing Pancho & Lefty?
No. He was raised
as a Southern gentleman, so he was very modest and very appreciative
if someone else did his songs. It made him visually very proud.
Like this album would make him so proud. Mainly just knowing
what was behind it, for them all to stop their schedules to
do one of his tunes for an album like this.
version of Pancho & Lefty was a No. 1 country
hit. Was Townes ever offered a major label deal in his life?
Yeah. There was
one incident in particular. The person that he called his driver,
his road manager Harold Eggers, had worked for a couple of years
to get him set up with this one major label contract. And there
was a signing bonus of like $80,000. Townes told Harold he thought
it was a great idea, went along with everything. So they both
go over to this record executives house this huge
estate in the real high-end part of Nashville. And the guy answers
the door and says, Id like to tell you we sent the
help home and my wife prepared the whole meal. And Townes
said, Im not here to eat your wifes slop.
[Laughs] Before theyd even gone in the door. And the guy
said, Hold on one second. Went in, got the check
for $80 grand, came back and ripped it up and handed it to Harold.
And Townes was so proud of that like it was this huge
achievement. Like hed worked his whole life for that opportunity.
That was real frustrating for Harold I think there was
a falling out. They ended up getting back together, though,
and now Harolds writing a book.
Why do you think
Townes was so opposed to idea of a major label?
Townes was very
spiteful of anything that
maybe part of the truth of
it was that he had this kind of privileged upbringing, and some
of his major heroes were people who didnt have that. He
had the opportunity to hang out with people like Lightnin
Hopkins in Houston after he dropped out of college, and I think
in his own mind he probably thought that if he was going to
hang out with Lightnin Hopkins in order to be more
genuine in his cravings for the blues -- he really had to shed
a lot of the advantages that he had. He wanted to be perceived
as having the blues and being a guitar player more than anything
else. The big thing to understand I think for people who arent
aware of who Townes was was that he wasnt famous at all
during his life. He kind of had an understanding that he would
be more appreciated after he was dead than he was alive. But
he was the most super modest writer of them all, because he
gave no credit to his songs at all. His major goal was just
to be viewed as a traveling blues guitar player.
How badly do
you think he had the blues?
He wasn't able to
let anythign roll off -- he just endured all the pain that he
could imagine. It wasn't a choice of his, he just soaked in
that saddness sometimes, intense sadness. But he could come
reeling out of it and be really witty and humorous too. It was
just kind of the roller coaster of his mind that was always
I remember asking
him things about politics and stuff as I entered my college
time, and he'd say things like, 'T, once you've had the blues,
none of that shit makes any fucking difference. Any world news
whatsoever -- the price of gas, etc. -- you can keep all that.
He would always say, 'It's a fucking bitch.' And you'd ask him,
'What?' And he'd like fake spit and say, 'It's a bitch man.
It's a bitch.' When I lived with him, most of the mornings when
I'd wake up, he would be on my bed, sitting on the foot of my
bed with his head in his hands nodding back and forth going,
fucking bitch,' and crying. A lot of that was the alcoholism
-- the ride that that takes you on is pretty unpleasant, but
he had had that even before the alcoholism. He had insulin shock
treatment put on him as a young man, and before that even, the
draft decided he was mentally unstable to the point where he
couldn't serve. It was just everyone misreading someone that
had a lot of insight into the problems and the emotions that
people feel. Because his choice of words were very simple, it
was just kind of the way he talked, but to anyone who wasn't
used to being around him, he could just box you in verbally.
You had no way to answer the things he was saying, and he could
prove and disprove himself right at the same time. He really
had a way with the English language.
The similarity is
made a lot, but in my own mind I think that the Hank Williams
and Townes Van Zandt correlation is that Townes lived long enough
to dictate what Hank felt like in the last days. He warned that
his end was coming 30 years before his death, he said
that it could be 30 years from now, but he basically warned
you all the time that he was skating on that edge. I think I
missed a lot of it, but there were a couple of instances that
convinced me that he might have a deeper connection that I was
unable to understand, that he was really coming to us all from
a level above having to go to work and come home and all that
other shit we go through every day. He saw right through that
to a deeper meaning. Ive never seen someone more able
to in the worst circumstances, in the worst stage of personal
abuse, be able to convince someone trying to help that they
also have no other choice except the choices hed made.
He could convince someone that they were not only not able to
help him, but that they had lied to themselves as well, and
that their life was a sham and that they should also start drinking
heavily. He could walk into an AA meeting and only say a few
of words and have everyone rolling dice for a dollar a pop and
drinking Vodka out of the bottle.
How did the drinking
affect his writing?
This was near the
end of his life. All of his major accomplishments were made
a long time ago, and he wrote some great songs in this period,
but they werent in the same group as his really popular
songs that were written from 69 to maybe 77. And
all those songs were written during a period when he didnt
have any of the visible signs of the abuse that was catching
up to him or that he was even an abuser of any substance. The
annoying assumption thats always made in my mind is that
somehow theres a correlation between his substance abuse
and his writing, but those two things were totally removed from
each other his ability to write was there long before
he was a substance abuser. His music on the early albums was
so separated, it wasnt even an issue alcoholism
didnt take effect until the last ten years of his life,
and then maybe only at his live shows to people who saw him
every time at the Cactus Cafe; they would have an idea that
he was really fucked up. But people who were just getting turned
on to him in other states, buying his albums and stuff, they
didnt need to know that he was a helpless alcoholic. It
was two different things.
What was it like
being on the road with him during this period?
control him. A lot of my role on the road with him would be
to ration out his vodka with water. There were times we were
left in awe of trying to figure out what Townes magic
was under this totally unmanageable shell of a 45-50 year-old
stubborn-ass traveling songwriter. It was almost like Roky Erickson,
because I was around him a lot too. Both of them were a lot
smarter than they were crazy, and their boredom and their level
of intelligence led to pranking the rest of us.
They knew what
they could get away with?
was a total spoiled brat.
[Laughs] One time
at a Dennys, I won this little stuffed animal baby buzzard
in one of those crane games, which I was playing just to get
away from the table. Townes, Harold and I would travel in this
GMC pickup called The Colonel it had some cabinets and
a foam mattress in the camper for Townes, and we had these little
Mickey Mouse walkie-talkies that he would use to yell at Harold
or I to pull over at a liquor store. Sometimes we would shut
the walkie-talkies off on him, and he would just be going berserk
back there, banging on the window. He was very intense
he could be an absolute gentleman, but to the people he loved,
he could scorn you pretty hard. But we kept this little baby
buzzard on the dash, and whenever Townes got like, Rawrrrr!,
you could reach for this buzzard and make it walk back and forth
across the dash, make its head kind of bob, and he would burst
into the laughter of a six year old. That was like the hidden
What was the
most memorable show you ever saw him play?
This is pretty bizarre
haven't told this to too many people. But he always felt that
he saw white angels or goblins. It was one of the two, and if
they were goblins, and you were in the airport with him, shit
was about to hit the fan. You couldn't control him. I would
always dismiss it as dementia, but it would be the last thing
you wanted to hear, because he was already a challenge for two
people just to get him out of the car or into the gig or off
the stage. And then to hear about goblins and all this stuff,
it was like, give me a fucking break!
But there was this
gig in Juno, Alaska at this place called the Norhtern Lights
Church. The town had actually gotten together and done the promotion
and the people at the show had paid for their tickets in advance
in the hopes of luring Townes to come up. So everyone there
not only wanted to see Townes but had something to do with him
being there. And there was this kind of tour guide who was a
songwriter, and we made her aware very early on that she was
going to have a big role in making sure the show went down,
because Townes at this point was like having five kids under
five years old on your hands. So this girl checked in and she
was a champ. I told her I was going to hide from Townes 30 minutes
before the show and that he was not allowed to have any booze.
He starts screaming If I dont see T, I aint
But he was too skinny to fight this big
old Alaskan songwriter chick and she just pushed him out there
[Laughs]. Then the crowd started roaring, and he became very
humble and played the most amazing show on the whole tour. After
the gig, he still hadnt had a drink, and the promoters
brought this old Alaskan shaman up to meet him, because she
had had something to tell him. She told him through an interpreter
that the only reason that he was able to balance on his stool
all night was because there was this angel supporting him from
behind with her wings spread. He just told her, I dig
That was when I
stopped trying to convince myself that he wasnt capable
of those kind of visions. His road manager Harold and I really
started treating him differently after that because it
was so convincing that he wasnt full of shit.
What is it thats
kept you from following the same path he did? Have you ever
felt a call to be a songwriter?
I fantasized as
a kid about being a songwriter. With a dad who's a performer,
you're like, Wow, where's my first guitar, when am I going
to start writing songs? stuff like that. But no, I really
don't pursue music at all. The way that Townes pursued it, and
the way that he kind of instilled in me to pursue it, was to
almost abandon all and if you didn't leave your spot with just
a guitar and your ambition to be a blues player, then you really
didn't have it in you to be preaching as such. If I feel myself
getting pulled towards that lifestyle I just want to get kind
of depressed and dramatic and start living that way too. So
I keep a day job to keep that from happening. I don't necessarily
feel it that often, but it's there. Sometimes I get spells of
the type of blues that he had. But after his death, I think
I always thought that it would be a minimal ten years before
Id even consider it. Then I thought, maybe first Ill
give a shot at being happy. And if that doesnt work out,
then Ill definitely be a songwriter.