I'll Be Here In The Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt by Brian T. Atkinson digs deep into the art of one of music's best and most influential songwriters. Mr. Atkinson retraces the artist's creative steps, as well as shares a wealth of interviews with some of Townes' biggest fans- who also happen to be some of today's best songwriters. He also chats up an impressive selection of some of the countless artists who have been and continue to be inspired by the many facets of Townes' brilliant and timeless body of work.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the author on when and how he discovered the music of Townes Van Zandt, what led him to compose I'll Be Here The Morning (focusing on Townes' songwriting as opposed to a biography), and his experiences interviewing some artists that have been influenced most by TVZ.
Can you begin by sharing some of your previous literary experiences?
Brian T. Atkinson: I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines for about 15 years, but I’ll Be Here in the Morning is my first book. I also have interviews with Rodney Crowell, Ben Folds, Lucero’s Ben Nichols and Josh Ritter in American Songwriter magazine’s book called Song: The World’s Best Songwriters on Creating the Music that Moves Us from a couple years ago.
Brian: I discovered Townes in January 1997, which I later discovered was the month that he died. I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa. It was one of those wicked Iowa City winter days, snowy and probably 30 below with the wind chill. A friend gave me two Steve Earle CDs: I Feel Alright and Train A-Comin’ and Steve’s cover of “Tecumseh Valley” at the end of Train A-Comin’ changed everything for me.
At that point, I was into your typical 23-year-old stuff: The Doors and Stones and Beatles and Zeppelin, but I thought “Tecumseh Valley” was the most perfect song I’d ever heard. I did a little research and was at the Iowa City Public Library before the end of the day checking out all the Townes albums I could. I think I bought most of his studio albums that week.
Townes immediately became something above and beyond everyone else. His songs were so perfect and pure and completely otherworldly. I honestly don’t know how much my appreciation has deepened since then, only because the impact was so profound right off the bat. I went from zero to 60 so quickly with him, listening to For the Sake of the Song and Our Mother the Mountain and Townes Van Zandt and Flyin’ Shoes and especially High, Low and In Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt on constant repeat for years before I even really started thinking about writing a book about him.
Brian: The idea to write about Townes came on January 1, 2003, but the angle came later. That New Year’s Day, I was in Galveston, Texas because No Depression editor Peter Blackstock assigned me to cover Wrecks Bell’s annual Townes tribute at the Old Quarter. That was my very first assignment for ND. People were onstage all night telling these heartbreaking and hilarious stories about Townes and by the end of the night there was no question that I had to write a book.
I knew there were already a couple Townes biographies in the works, though, so I just knew it had to be somehow different. I didn’t consciously start out thinking it’d be a book about only songwriters talking about Townes. They’re just the ones I naturally gravitated toward interviewing first and the ball kept rolling that direction.
Looking back now, I think Hayes Carll probably planted the subconscious seed to angle the book toward Townes’ influence and what he passed on to future generations. The way he covered Townes’ “Greensboro Woman” and “Loretta” that night in Galveston at the Townes tribute blew me away and really showed how Townes had affected him as a young writer.
How and when did you get started?
Brian: I was living in Denver when I covered that Townes tribute for No Depression and I started working on the book within the week after I returned home. I wasn’t very established as a freelancer then, though, so early interviews took lots of work to line up. I went at it full-speed for a couple years but put it on the back burner many times, mostly because it took several years for the angle to develop and publishers rejected it so many times before I had that all fleshed out.
What were your goals for the book?
Brian: At first, my idea was just to spread the word about Townes. I couldn’t handle the blank stars I’d get almost every time when I’d bring up his name anywhere outside Texas. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t being talked about in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Hank Williams around the world.
Of course, his widespread legacy and legend have grown a lot in the years since. As that has happened, my goal became more to keep spreading the word about his music instead of his lifestyle. I understand how people can fall for the romance of the tortured artist idea, I certainly did years ago, but that shouldn’t overshadow the music. His songs are what really need to be celebrated.
What were your favorite Townes recordings before beginning the bio as you were going into the project?
Brian: That’s a tough one. I’ve never been good with favorites when it comes to Townes. I’m fairly obsessive-compulsive with music I love and just listen to all of it over and over and over until it’s completely engrained and that’s what I did with Townes’ entire catalog. I see his as one ongoing body of work that’s just Townes, not anything to split into individual favorites. That said, I was probably most into High, Low and In Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt going into the book.
What has changed for you when you listen to Townes' music now that the book is finished?
Brian: Not much has changed. Songs like “Flyin’ Shoes,” “A Song For,” “Nothin’,” “To Live Is To Fly,” “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” “No Lonesome Tune,” “Rex’s Blues,” “For the Sake of the Song,” “Snowin’ on Raton” and dozens of others still stop me in my tracks today the same way they did when I first heard them. Ten years ago, I knew there was nothing in this world better than driving through Raton Pass, New Mexico listening to “Snowin’ on Raton” and that’s still true.
Any new favorites after composing the book?
Brian: I’ve only recently been able to listen to Townes again for pleasure. I got so deep into the songs while writing that I couldn’t listen to him for at least a year after finishing. Then I only listened to him to prepare for interviews. Something finally clicked a couple weeks ago and I thought, “Man, I really miss hearing Townes.”
Since then, I’ve been going back to favorites like “Flyin’ Shoes” and “Snowin’ on Raton,” but, yeah, I’ve also gotten more into songs like “Fare Thee Well Miss Carousel” and “Come Tomorrow.” I’ve been playing along with the great chord changes in “She Came and She Touched Me.”
“At My Window” and “The Catfish Song” are a couple others that are really hitting me more since finishing the book. I spent all day New Year’s Day, the sixteenth anniversary of his death, listening to an advance of that new Townes double-disc, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972. Then I drove over to a shop on South Lamar and got a Townes tattoo on my left arm.
You have interviewed a number of artists (including Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett) who have worked with and/ or have been deeply influenced by Townes' (life and) work over the years. Can you discuss some of your own favorite artists and or albums that have been influenced by his music over the years?
Brian: Many are in the book, including the ones you mentioned, plus younger songwriters like Hayes Carll, Kasey Chambers, Jim James and Josh Ritter. I think it’s probably natural for me to seek out my personal favorites from the thousands who have been influenced by Townes for my book. Guy Clark’s at the very top. I’ve been working as a research assistant on my friend Tamara Saviano’s Guy biography the past couple years and traveling around Texas to dig up Guy’s history has been just as fun as working on the Townes book.
What were some of your most surprising and/ or unexpected discoveries of Townes' (life and) body of work?
Brian: Every Townes fan knows the story about him chaining himself to a tree to stop drinking, but I had no idea that Steve Young inspired that until we did our interview. That was definitely one of the most surprising discoveries.
As far as his body of work, one reader told me that songwriters bring up “Snowin’ on Raton” more than any other song in the book. You’d think it’d be something more obvious like “Pancho and Lefty” or “If I Needed You,” but I guess that shows how well everyone I interviewed knows Townes’ music and how great a song that is.
Can you share a couple of memorable experiences interviewing artists featured in the book?
Brian: My favorite was probably Kasey Chambers, but mostly for what happened after. We did our interview in a tiny trailer backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003. Everything went well. She was in great spirits and friendly and we talked for about 45 minutes, mostly about Townes and some about our lives. When we finished, I asked if she’d play “If I Needed You” during her set that afternoon since she’d recorded it before. Kasey said she’d love to, but that was her family band’s special song and they only played it when everyone was onstage. (Her dad Bill and brother Nash were playing in her band that day, but her mother was back in Australia watching her kid.)
So, I said that’s cool and told her that I was heading over to see Bill put on a guitar workshop downtown. So, I did. About an hour into the workshop, I saw Kasey walk out an alley from beside a pizza shop. She went to the side of the stage, where she hung out for a couple songs until Bill said he needed to wrap it up. Then she walked onstage and whispered in his ear. He looked at her and smiled and they closed with “If I Needed You.”
Another was Jim James. I emailed My Morning Jacket’s manager eight or nine years ago and said I was writing a book about Townes Van Zandt and wanted to include Jim’s thoughts. I had no idea whether he’d heard the name let alone the music, but I was asking every songwriter under the sun at that point. Jim himself replied the very same day. Not verbatim but close: “Sure, man! I love Townes! Let me know when!”
We met a couple weeks later when My Morning Jacket was in Boulder, Colorado to play the Fox Theater. Jim was utterly earthy as he tumbled out of the tour bus with all that hair and his holey T-shirt. We walked unnoticed that afternoon to a Mexican joint. Ordered Dos Equis. Talked Townes nonstop for at least 45 minutes. When we finished, I told him that my buddy Mike was waiting on the front patio. The day was bright and crisp and Jim suggested we join him. We did. Then we ordered another round and talked about everything and nothing for another hour until sound check.
As someone taking on the subject of Townes' songwriting (which encompasses his life and music), what were trying to accomplish with this project? What "kind of story" did you want to tell to make this book stand apart?
Brian: I think there eventually will be dozens of books about Townes just like there are about Dylan and Hank Williams. I just chose to focus on songwriting and his influence on songwriters and I think that’s what makes the book unique among the others out there so far. My book tells the story of how Townes influenced some of our great songwriters from across the board.
What's next for you?
Brian: Good question. I’ve been working on a couple ideas for my next book. In the meantime, I’ve been collaborating on a few other books. Nothing’s far enough along to really get into, but at least the next few books I’m planning on doing are focused on folk music that came from Texas.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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