For the countless fans of the legendary, immensely influential Townes Van Zandt, this February 5th holds a very special place on their calendar. On that date, Omnivore Recordings will be releasing a two disc box set consisting of 28 previously unissued tracks. Recorded from 1971-1972, this period in Van Zandt's career is widely regarded by many music critics as his most prolific and important period as a songwriter.
Titled Townes Van Zandt-Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972, it features an exciting mix of both new songs as well as alternate versions of his classics. For fans who feared that after all these years no new Van Zandt songs and recordings could possibly be unearthed, this is a joyful discovery to revel in. For others who appreciate Van Zandt's amazing ability to imbue something unique into a song's repeated performance, these alternate versions are like skillfully re-cut diamonds, revealing new and more subtle beauty not previously experienced.
Adding to the overall "loving care" clearly evident in this collection's packaging is Omnivore Recordings' wise choice of Colin Escott to write its liner notes. Escott, a Toronto-based music journalist, has written many superb liner notes for Polygram, Rhino, MCA, CBS, Bear Family, RCA, Atlantic, Rounder, and Time-Life music. With this release, he can now add Omnivore Recordings to his impressive resume of first rate liner notes.
Singer/songwriter David Olney, critically hailed as the "Leonard Cohen of Americana" was a close friend and confidant of Townes Van Zandt. To commemorate the upcoming (February 5) official release of this important Townes Van Zandt two disc box set, David Olney graciously took time-in the middle of a busy North American Tour-to sit with Examiner and share his memories and insights into the artist whom singer/songwriter extraordinaire Steve Earle proclaimed is "the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that":
David, in what ways did Townes Van Zandt serve as an inspiration or teacher to you as a songwriter?
That was really the way we knew each other: through music. With all his other habits and stuff I never would have been able to keep up with him. We always connected musically. There's a bunch of different ways and here's one: there's a song he has called 'Dollar Bill Blues' (starts to sing the lines) "If I had a dollar bill, yes I believe I surely will go to town and drink my fill, early in the morning" and it's got a line in it that goes "Mother was a golden girl. I slit her throat just to get her pearls." When I heard that, I thought "How in the world can you say that? You slit the throat of your own mother!" Then I thought "He's just grabbing these images out of the unconscious, and he has the fortitude to stand by them and not discard them if they were unpleasant or in some way jarring." He always went with it. That's one of the things that I thought I could learn from him: trust one's instinct.
I think later on for me-in my song '1917'-there's a line in it from the character in the song: "We make love too hard, too fast!" When I wrote that, I thought "People don't want to...well, that's an uncomfortable sort of image!" But then I thought "Well, this is a prostitute singing." It was appropriate that she talk about this, and this guy she is singing about feels like he is doomed. He is pretty much shattered by the war. I think he would be pretty desperate in the way he would make love. I thought "That's the way it came into my head and I'm gonna go with that." There was a connection between that song and the way that Townes wrote.
So Townes taught you to trust your instincts?
Yes! I think the way that he wrote, and the way that I write, and the way that most people that I admire write is that you're not writing for the big hit that's an "Adele-sized" song. Instead you're going for something that's a little more on thin ice. Don't discard an image because you think it's gonna cost you money or something. If it's the right image then it's the right image, and you should go with it.
So you have a lot of artistic integrity, and you're thanking Townes-at least in part-for that. Do you feel that this was one of the "gifts" he gave to you?
Yes, I would say so. He also had another thing that he would do. It always struck me in his song 'Pueblo Waltz' where he says "Maybe we'll go to Tennessee to see Susanna and Guy." When I first heard that song, I didn't know who Susanna and Guy were, but I knew that he (Townes) knew who they were. I thought it was very generous that he would let you in on his friendships. It worked perfectly in the song. I've thought about it a good bit. In someone else's hands it's just a bit of esoteric knowledge. Since you don't know these people it kinda leaves you out. But somehow, in the way that Townes did it, he let's you in. Suddenly, you are friends with Susanna and Guy!
Can you tell our readers an interesting story about Townes?
When I got to know him the best was during the year that he didn't drink. Me and my wife were just getting together then; we'd just gotten a place to live. Townes would come by every now and then...
Now what year was that?
It was the early 1990s, I think. I'm not exactly sure what year. Townes would come by on his motorcycle, and come knocking on the door. It would be like opening your door and there's George Washington! He was coming because he was a friend, and it was so kind of him to do that.
I knew that he was a great admirer of Lightnin' Hopkins, and I'd seen that movie 'Sounder' and there's a part in it where they use Lightnin' Hopkins doing 'Now is a Needed Time.' Townes had just called and said "I'm gonna come on by" so I thought "I'll play that song for him. Maybe he'll like that." So he came over and I was just getting ready to do the song, and I said "Hey Townes, listen to this!" and I hit the chord. It was a big E chord, and I had not played one note yet he immediately recognized the song, saying "Yeah! That's the Lightnin' Hopkins thing!" I hadn't played a note of it! It was just so completely...(starts to laugh).
A lot of people have stories about these sort of magical things that Townes would do. That was one of 'em; it just floored me! I have no idea how he would know what the song was. I think he was very intuitive that way. It was beautiful!
I have a note here from one of our Examiner readers who wants to hear the story that you related in the documentary on Townes. ('Be Here To Love Me')
Oh yeah! That was another story. That happened at a show where Richard Thompson and I had gone down to Houston (Texas) to play a gig. We got there a bit early, and Townes was playing at the old quarter, at an acoustic folk show. There was a very beautiful girl sitting in the front row, and I was standing right off the stage when suddenly-right in the middle of Townes' playing-she just ripped off her shirt and threw it up onstage! Now this is all happening at a folk show, lol!
Ha! We're not in Vegas here! We're not at a Tom Jones show! The setting would not be apropos! Wow, she was that moved?!
Yeah! (we both start laughing)
It's well known that you are the "keeper" of Townes Van Zandt's boots! Would you tell our readers once again the fascinating story of how you came into possession of that coveted item.
We were on tour, and Townes stopped into a Goodwill Store on our way into Little Rock (Arkansas) where he bought a jacket that was a little too small for him. So he said to me “Here! (handing over the jacket) Here’s this jacket.” A day later, he said to me “Try these on!” and it was then that he gave me the boots. You know, they were a little too small for me, but I wasn't about to say to him “No, here’s your boots back!” I've now got Townes Van Zandt’s boots!
I knew he had this sort of "dark" aspect to him, but the part I saw in him-the part he showed to me-was a funny, interesting and charming person. It was a real honor to know Townes.
Release Date (February 5, 2013)
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Omnivore Recordings
Track Listing: Disc: 1
1. T For Texas
2. Who Do You Love
3. Sunshine Boy
4. Where I Lead Me
5. Blue Ridge Mountains
6. No Deal
7. Pancho & Lefty (Alternate 1972 Mix Without Strings And Horns)
8. To Live Is To Fly
9. You Are Not Needed Now
10. Don't Take It Too Bad
11. Sad Cinderella
12. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
13. White Freight Liner Blues
14. Two Hands
16. Dead Flowers
1. Heavenly Houseboat Blues
2. Diamond Heel Blues
3. To Live Is To Fly
4. Tower Song
5. You Are Not Needed Now
6. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
7. Highway Kind
8. Greensboro Woman
9. When He Offers His Hand
10. Dead Flowers
11. Old Paint