I’ve been reading an excellent autobiography on Townes Van Zandt, written by his road manager, friend and business partner, Harold Eggers, and it offers a deep insight into and details of Townes’ later years and later work — the songs I don’t usually listen to as much. It’s a great book, written from a place of love and honesty. I’m a chapter away from the end, and knowing how it all winds up has me stalling, putting the book down and walking away from it while Townes is still alive. Still breathing. Still putting out records.
Today I’m listening to Roadsongs, an album of covers Townes issued in the U.S. in 1994, just three years before his death. In the book, Eggers says it took some convincing to get Townes to put out the album of live covers that Eggers had recorded at his performances in the late 70s and early 80s. “I’m not a stylist.” he said. “I’m known as a songwriter. These songs — how can I cover them better than the artists did them originally?”
Even as he eventually agreed to release the album, Townes worried that it could herald the end of his career. Instead, with Roadsongs he released one of the most popular and wide-reaching songs he’d ever recorded, his cover of a Rolling Stones song. The Coen Brothers used it to great effect in a movie you have probably seen a dozen times. Of course that came after Townes was gone, but it introduced him to scores of new listeners who poured through his catalog and gave his songs the second life they deserve.
In Townes’ early days of playing, he would perform songs from two of his greatest musical influences: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lead Belly. There are four Lightnin’ tunes on Roadsongs, performed by Townes with a tender reverence, but how else did Townes ever perform?
Talk of Townes doing a joint album with Bob Dylan was always bandied about, but such a project never came to fruition. Townes did cover two Dylan songs on Roadsongs — one of which many music critics refer to as the worst song Dylan ever recorded. (Leaving one to wonder, have these critics never heard that godawful Christmas song Dylan put out?) I prefer Townes’ interpretations of these songs, though I understand Dylan fan boys might not share my opinion.
It’s understandable why Townes had reservations about releasing a cover album. We’ve all heard cover songs that left us scratching our heads, wondering why anyone decided to put their personal touch (or lack thereof) on songs that were already perfect as they were. But Townes was different in many ways. His touch was a throwback. He stripped songs down, laid them bare and let their cores stand on their own, without flair or ornamentation. It’s why folks love him. He was an amazing songwriter, but he was also a talented guitar player, and a wonderful storyteller. Whatever he sang, whether his own composition or an age-old tune handed down through the generations, Townes infused his songs with so much emotion, passion and pain, beauty and honesty, you come away from listening to his records with a feeling like you’ve had a personal experience with the man, like you’ve had a brief peek into his tortured soul.