There’s a proprietary intimacy commensurate with universal experiences. The full-body quake of a first kiss, or the wild horse liberation of a new driver on the open road. Life’s milestones endure as unique impressions. For the legions of fans who’ve found the music of Townes Van Zandt, the feeling is as personal and revelatory.
Whether his records were passed down by a father or older sibling, served up by an algorithm, or struck like a lightning bolt at a listening station, the swift blow of Van Zandt’s poetic clarity has become a throughline in musical coming of age. His profound and unfussy guitar-and-voice compositions centered on love, heartache and tribulation are an essential fiber in the fabric of American culture, commanding attention and unrelenting in their grasp.
Yet, as heralded as the folk singer of Fort Worth, Texas, has become, however often his name is uttered in the same breath as Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, the path to discovery and the relationship with each tune remains acutely personal, a private boxcar humming down the track of self-evident truth. A one-room cabin in a shared landscape composed from a drifter’s pen. The unearthing of songs like “Waiting Around to Die,” “Pancho & Lefty” and “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” act as pages in an anthology of related yet wholly individual tales.
Perhaps it’s because Van Zandt’s words, highly calculated yet deceptively plainspoken, don’t just speak to the listener. His words speak through all who hear them. And so his work, as far-reaching and as universal as it has become, begs for possessorship. It’s a love language understood by all who find it, yet one that remains acutely difficult to translate to those who haven’t. How can one truly grasp the astute and necessary observations of two parakeets named Loop and Lil unless you’ve heard Van Zandt say it, from the modest stage and low-grade chatter of a tiny nightclub, or a scuffed CD.
No one understood this better than his earliest fans. It’s perhaps why his first studio album, For the Sake of the Song, remains a point of controversy among anyone who discovered Townes Van Zandt outside of these LP’s grooves. Townes Van Zandt the songwriter was the antithesis of bells and whistles, and so an album with such accoutrements, as this album has in spades, rings false — however unfairly — among purists. Taken in context, though, For the Sake of the Song is a gorgeous study in polarity. Each anchor is an artist from wildly different backgrounds, united under the profound effect of songcraft.
Like any fan, from any far-flung corner of the world, who has ever resonated with truth in these songs, their meaning and the way that meaning is translated to the world remains open to interpretation. But their impression is everlasting. The same can be said of the man who wrote the songs, and the man who gathered them into an album.
In 1965, Townes Van Zandt was a 21-year-old college dropout who’d opened a few times for storied blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins at Houston’s Jester Lounge, hub of Texas folk-music culture at the time. Though the club often drew bigger names, who’d drop by at the end of the evening after their headlining gig at a local theater, by 1966 the Jester’s regular performers included Van Zandt, his new friend Guy Clark, “Mr. Bojangles” author Jerry Jeff Walker — who’d just headed south from New York — and folk humorist Don Sanders. They earned about $10 a night.
Local audiences had come to expect in Van Zandt simplicity, clarity and a knowing wink. Though he professed heart-sunken lines like “If you ever come to Denver / Mama please don’t try to find me / All you do is just remind me / Of the way you let me down,” he also cracked jokes and sang about failed attempts at learning martial arts. Spinning a yarn was all part of the gig, and to Van Zandt, so serious about his craft from so early on, comic relief from the stage became necessary. His frequent and varying states of inebriation couldn’t have hurt.
Club regulars who had the purpose of mind to take note of the handsome songwriter with the beanpole frame, who had a studious love of blues music and a lyrical wisdom that belied his young age, were the same folks in the crowd during the very first recording of Van Zandt’s earliest works, an oft-traded bootleg known as Live at the Jester Lounge Houston, Texas 1966 upon its official release in 2004.
The album’s 13 tracks consist of covers and a few originals like “Colorado Bound” and “Talkin’ Karate Blues,” — recorded for For the Sake of the Song two years later — sung plainly over minimal guitar picking and met with claps and hollers from the audience. Young Van Zandt was a fixture among folk music fans at the Jester, a marginal scene on the decline. In 1969, when friend and future collaborator Rex “Wrecks” Bell opened his new club The Old Quarter, Van Zandt became a Houston legend, returning folk music to vogue among hip and turned-on locals. In between, Van Zandt entered into what would become an albums-long working relationship with a storied Nashville producer.
A former Sun Studios engineer credited with discovering Jerry Lee Lewis and writing Johnny Cash’s hit “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Cowboy” Jack Clement discovered Van Zandt on a lark. As Clement remembers it in his foreword to I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, a trip to Houston with a friend led him to a local studio, where the owner played for Clement a few live recordings of the young songwriter, a fixture at the Jester and the Sand Mountain Coffeehouse. His immediate thought was to do a record, though he was unsure of the type of sound he heard. Van Zandt wasn’t Dylan, who’d just recorded his album John Wesley Harding at Colombia’s studio in Nashville. And he certainly wasn’t a country artist, Clement’s bread and butter. Still, what he heard was incredibly special.
In the documentary Be Here To Love Me Van Zandt’s first wife Fran remembered that he wrote “Waiting Around to Die,” his most gorgeous gut punch, in their first apartment, in a tiny walk-in closet he’d commandeered for a studio. In the midst of what she assumed was bohemian newlywed bliss, he wrote the lines:
“I came of age and I found a girl
in a Tuscaloosa bar
she cleaned me out and hit in on the sly
I tried to kill the pain, bought some wine
and hopped a train
seemed easier than just waitin’ around to die.”
It exemplifies a worldview so defty concluded by Van Zandt in the same documentary. “I don’t think they’re all that sad,” he said of his songs. “I have a few that aren’t sad, they’re hopeless. About a totally hopeless situation. And the rest aren’t sad, they’re just the way it goes.” And the songs he wrote and performed in those days, just a scrawny kid with an acoustic guitar — a hippie cowboy as Van Zandt often said — were the very meaning of that purview.
When Clement and Van Zandt met at Bradley’s Barn near Nashville in April 1968, each man worked by instinct. Van Zandt brought with him “Waiting Around To Die,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Sad Cinderella” and other compositions of a troubled ilk — heartworn, downtrodden, “just the way it goes,” as if the man who wrote them somehow peered far into his future and then scrawled what he saw retroactively. With these sage and skeletal meditations came just an acoustic guitar and his southerly articulations.
For Clement, the man who arranged the mariachi horns on “Ring of Fire,” and produced a slew of Charley Pride’s pop crossover hits, the work at Bradley’s Barn meant adding strings, backup singers, reverb and even a harpsichord. For Van Zandt, who cared only for songwriting and who’d never set foot in a studio, it meant deferring to the experts. And today, there’s beauty in that pedigree, and in that trust. That two opposite ends met in the middle. That the album was recorded live with a three-track is a testament to each man’s intuition and follow-through, different as their methods and approaches might have been.
Decades after its December 1968 release, both men admitted their shortcomings during this first pass at a collaboration. Clement had said that, yes, he might have overproduced a few tracks. The reverb on Van Zandt’s voice might be a bit too thick, and the harpsichord on “Sad Cinderella,” and the backing vocals on “Velvet Voices,” a touch over the top. Van Zandt, too, admitted he should have spoken up a bit more. But these versions of “Waitin’ Around to Die” and “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” are as epic and cinematic as is deserving of such iconic lyrics. The tragic salience of “Tecumseh Valley” and the title track still rattle bones.
Today, For the Sake of the Song endures as a collection of timeless songs, and an album that is as focused and immortal as it is ornate. The passing of time and new generations of fans have rightfully aided in hushing bygone purists; this album has transcended eras. Today the Houston folkie and Nashville royalty poles of Clement and Van Zandt stand as not only valuable, but crucial.