Friday Night with Guitar George: Townes Van Zandt Edition

The people have spoken, and George is listening. Last week, in response to a suggestion from @ohkiv, I wrote a piece about Gram Parsons. The response across the BGS readership was very positive, and I enjoyed the Twitter conversation that ensued. During said Twitter conversation about Parsons, somebody mentioned Townes Van Zandt– and voila—he is the featured artist this week.

As it turns out, Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt actually have a lot in common. Both were born into wealthy families. Both went to college but dropped out to pursue music careers. Both were plagued by demons that led to severe drug and alcohol addictions. Both failed to achieve widespread success during their lifetimes in spite of being well-received by music critics and well-respected by other musicians. Fortunately, their product was good enough to stand on its own, and has been covered by a broad range of musicians and thus remains alive and well, justifiably so.

Parsons and Van Zandt also had something else in common: a friendship and artistic kinship with Emmylou Harris, who on one hand shared Van Zandt’s deep love of folk music, while on the other hand was following Parsons in the direction of what we now know as country rock. Emmylou speaks very fondly of Townes in this excerpt from Be Here to Love Me, a documentary about Van Zandt recorded in 2004. Steve Earle appears in the same film, and while this anecdote about Van Zandt is humorous, it also points to the darker side of Townes.

Van Zandt had a voice that could be raw and tender at the same time, and his lyrics could be both pointed and poetic. His stories were drawn from the most basic elements of human existence, combining the bleak with the redemptive. The same vocal talents that Van Zandt brought to his own compositions were demonstrated in his cover songs as well, The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” being a perfect example: Mick Jagger sings the song as though he is telling a story, but Townes Van Zandt sings it as if he had lived through it.

Because (a) I am in a magnanimous mood and (b) this week’s episode of The 500 got derailed by *technical difficulties*, I am providing a generous portion of material to enjoy over the weekend. This fifty-three minute session was recorded in Austin, Texas in 1995, two years before Van Zandt’s death, and this link is to a live performance recorded in Houston in 1973. Tonight’s featured video is a beautifully heartfelt performance of “If I Needed You”, one of Van Zandt’s best compositions. Not only does it showcase his vocal command, it also shows Van Zandt’s skill on the acoustic guitar, which is indeed GG-worthy.

Please keep those Twitter comments coming—as @ohkiv says, the synergy on the music side of Braves General Store has been lively and fun lately and we would like to keep it up.

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  1. […] King: Of all the great Guitar George pieces, the Townes van Zandt one still lingers in my memory. I love outlaw Texas music from the 1970s, and Townes’ tragic life […]

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