A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt – Cactus Cafe (Austin, TX)
“HOUSEBOAT IN HEAVEN”
Townes Van Zandt played the Cactus Cafe in Austin, Texas, for the last time on Saturday, October 13, 1996. He died on January 1, 1997, the anniversary of the death of Hank Williams, one of his true heroes. During the radio tribute I did to Townes the next evening, the manager of the Cactus, Griff Luneberg, called and said that Townes was booked to play on January 22 & 23, and that those dates would be made a tribute to him, with his fans and friends invited to perform.
The list of confirmed guests for the “Houseboat In Heaven” tribute was impressive. Both nights drew sellout crowds at $10 admission, with the money to go to college funds for Will and Katie Belle, Townes’ two young children. Griff asked me to MC, and I said okay. I slipped in shortly after the show started on Wednesday, just in time to introduce Barbara K (best-known as a member of Timbuk3), who did a beautiful rendition of “Snowin’ On Raton”.
Among the highlights on the first night were Kimmie Rhodes and her son Gabe doing “If I Needed You”, and Kimmie’s song that she and Townes had recorded as a duet, “I’m Gonna Fly”. Mandy Mercier, Champ Hood and Dan Earhart joined forces for “Tecumseh Valley”, “White Freight Liner Blues” and “Fraulein”, which Champ had learned from a Townes 45. In one of his last studio sessions, Townes and Barb Donovan recorded a duet of “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and Barb was there to sing it at the tribute.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore came on at about 10 p.m.; a local TV station’s newscast stuck a camera in the door during his set, which included “No Lonesome Tune”, “Tecumseh Valley” and “White Freight Liner Blues”. The latter was the first song on Jimmie’s first album, Fair & Square. A bit later I introduced one of the surprise guests, Joe Ely, by saying that he had the honor of having Townes record one of his songs, “Indian Cowboy”. Joe told about seeing Townes lost in the warehouse district of Lubbock and offering him a ride out to the edge of town. Townes had a backpack filled with copies of his first album. No extra clothes, just records. Townes gave Joe one of the records, and Joe took it over to Gilmore’s house, where they listened to it over and over. Joe then sang “Waitin’ Around To Die” and “Tecumseh Valley”. He finished out with “Indian Cowboy”, which he said he had to re-learn from Townes’ recording, because he had forgotten that he had written it.
Eric Taylor and Abner Burnette, both veterans of an early Austin songwriter bar called Spellman’s, also played. Abner told of Townes and Blaze Foley playing pool at Spellman’s and hustling people with a trick shot through a roll of duct tape that they would practice constantly. Later, after the show, Abner flipped quarters with Eric’s wife Martha for his Martin guitar. He lost and she walked away with his guitar.
On Wednesday, I got to the Cactus early enough to kick things off and tell the story about how Townes got his first guitar. When Townes was about nine years old, he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show. His older sister and some of her girlfriends were in the room, and when Townes saw the effect Elvis had on those girls, he decided there was something in the guitar. Townes asked his father for a guitar, and he said he’d buy him one if he would learn “Fraulein” as his first song. Townes promised; he got his guitar and learned “Fraulein” first. Townes sang “Fraulein” his entire career. In the last couple years of his life he had a German girlfriend named Claudia. The first song he learned to sing became the last love of his life. Damon Bramblett sang “Fraulein” to lead off the Thursday tribute.
While introducing Derral Gleason, the Cactus Cafe’s soundman, I quoted Townes, from “To Live Is To Fly”, on a topic crucial to a traveling musician, the sound system: “I’ll miss the system here/The bottom’s low and the treble’s clear.” Derral sang the song he always requested from Townes, “The Hole”.
Troy Campbell and Scrappy Jud Newcomb of Loose Diamonds did “Still Lookin’ For You” and “Two Girls”. Troy said he had seen a Bob Dylan concert one time and Dylan had introduced “Pancho & Lefty” by saying, “This is by the greatest songwriter in the world.” Steve Earle has been quoted as saying “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Townes reportedly responded, “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”
Troy left the stage, and Beaver Nelson joined Jud and sang “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”, the five-card stud classic. After the song, Beaver flipped his guitar over and showed the cards for the last two hands of the game, which he had taped to the back of the guitar. Beaver and Scrappy also did “Snake Song” and “Blaze’s Blues”, which Townes wrote for his late running buddy Blaze Foley.
Will T. Massey did two of the prettiest Townes songs, “Quicksilver Dreams Of Maria” and “The Catfish Song”. Darden Smith was up next, and he told the story of opening for Townes at Anderson Fair in Houston, which he likened to opening for Noah at a boat builders convention. Darden had built Townes up to his parents, and they were in the audience. During his set, Townes fell off his chair, and Darden’s mother began to have doubts about her son’s career choice. Darden sang “Loretta”.
After intermission, Kelly Willis opened the second set with a beautiful version of “Rex’s Blues”, a song about Rex Bell, who played bass for both Townes and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Roxy Gordon told several stories about his adventures with Townes, mostly involving drinking and/or gambling. Roxy and Townes shared the same birthday, March 7, though Townes was a year older.
Jimmy LaFave revealed that he was born in Van Zandt county, named for Townes’ ancestors. He sang “Snowin’ On Raton”, “Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love” and “The Catfish Song”, accompanied by Randy Glines and Ron Welch. Bruce Robison sang “Greensboro Woman” and “Pancho & Lefty”. Michael Fracasso was backed up by Jud Newcomb and Beaver Nelson on “Loretta” and “Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love”.
Rich Minus played both nights. He did well on Wednesday, telling an anecdote about a time when Billy Joe Shaver called Townes up for a couple of guest songs. Townes created pandemonium by saying that Billy Joe wanted everybody to have a drink on the house. On Thursday, Rich told every third word of the story and stumbled through “No Lonesome Tune”, singing the “In the kitchen mama sneezed” verse twice. Then he passed out on the stage. After Rich was helped off stage, Mark Ambrose sang the most appropriate Townes Van Zandt song to follow that bit of unease: “If I had no place to fall/And I needed to/Could I count on you/To lay me down…”
J.T. Van Zandt closed out both nights with memories of his dad and a few songs, including Peter LaFarge’s “Ballad Of Ira Hayes”, which Townes often sang, and thought he could have written if it hadn’t already been written. Townes felt that the songs were out there and basically just needed to be harvested. He certainly harvested some of the best ones, and the real star of the tribute was his incredible body of work, which stands as some of the finest literature of the Twentieth Century.