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Tales From Texas Music: The Electric Cowboy and The Hillbilly Hero

Ever wonder what it would be like to see Texas songwriting greats Townes Van Zandt, and Wayne Hancock play a show together? Editor Courtney S. Lennon wanted to find out, so she created “Tales From Texas Music: The Electric Cowboy and the Hillbilly Hero.” Courtney takes you to virtual Texas, to experience Townes and Wayne doing some song and story swapping. Learn about their lives, read stories and listen to songs.

 

Tales From Texas Music

The Electric Cowboy and the Hillbilly Hero

By Courtney S. Lennon

 

The Electric Cowboy

“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world,” Steve Earle once famously said, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s response was swift. “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards,” the legendary songwriter said, “and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”

Townes Van Zandt simply was singular. He did no small part in blossoming his own legacy. At twenty-eight years old, the Fort Worth, Texas native was already known as “The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt,” a premonition he boasted as the title of his seminal 1972 album that the Electric Cowboy (as Rodney Crowell called him) would live fast, die young and remain forever immortal in Texas legend. “I don’t envision a very long life for myself,” a young Van Zandt says in Margaret Brown’s 2005 documentary, Be Here To Love Me. “Like, I think my life will run out before my work does, you know? I designed it that way.”

Van Zandt lived in rundown shacks and trailers with no indoor plumbing during his prime songwriting years in his late twenties and well into his thirties. In the 1976 James Szalapski’s seminal documentary. Heartworn Highways, about the outlaw country movement in Texas and Tennesee during the seventies, Van Zandt is at his trailer in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood, a mostly black section of town at the time which has long since been gentrified. Van Zandt greets the camera crew with his boyish charm and a dirty white cowboy hat on his head, smiling from ear to ear as he introduces himself with a bottle of liquor in one hand, a Coke and shotgun he playfully waves around in the other.

One of the most memorable moments in the film is his performance of “Pancho and Lefty,” a song that Bob Dylan considers the best ever written. “Townes’s songs are literature wrapped up in three verses and sometimes not even a chorus,” explains Brian T. Atkinson, the Austin, Texas-based author of the book I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. “His words were perfect. Not too many. Not too few. Exactly right. They could make you laugh and then break your heart within a dozen words. Over and over again.”

Throughout his life, Van Zandt struggled with bipolar disorder, going through severe highs and lows. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. In the spring of his second year of college, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he fell four floors down off a porch, landing on his back. His mother believed he was suicidal and flew in from Houston, Texas, to Boulder, and took him back to nearby Galveston, where he was admitted to the University of Texas Medical Branch. While he was there, Van Zandt was given insulin shock therapy, which put him into a coma every day for months. It ultimately caused him to lose his long-term memory and his mother considers it the greatest regret of her life.

After he was released from the hospital, Van Zandt seemingly didn’t care if he lived or died. He often played Russian Roulette throughout the following years as a lark, leaving his life up to chance. At one point, he held the pistol to his head in front his songwriting disciple Steve Earle, who immediately scattered the scene. His careless behavior might’ve been attributed to his lack of commercial success despite enormous critical acclaim from certain circles. Early in his career, Van Zandt was extremely productive, releasing six albums over the course of four years, beginning with his 1968 debut, For the Sake of the Song, up to his aptly titled 1972 release The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. But after his initial run of albums, Van Zandt was depressed, feeling like a failure after not finding the success he’d hoped for. He released only three more studio albums the rest of his life with nearly a decade gap between his 1978 album Flyin’ Shoes, and 1987’s At My Window. He spent the years between drinking and drugging recklessly and going in and out of rehabilitation facilities.

 

“Nothin’”

Delta Momma Blues (1971)

Van Zandt wrote the hauntingly bare, and lonesome, “Nothin’” about his time in a mental hospital. He said he was thinking about a man sitting in a dark room, and watching a guy in the opposite corner, burning a candle while writing the song. Van Zandt’s melodic guitar picking, and sparseness, creates a chilling mood with literary lyrics, that make the song visual. He’s hopeless, empty, stripped bare of all ambition. In the last verse he sings words that might serve as his life’s motto: “Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things / And the only words that are worth rememberin’.”

 

The Hillbilly Hero

“I was born in Dallas, Texas in 1965,” Wayne Hancock says. “My life was constantly uprooted. My family went from Texas to Idaho, Texas up to Kansas, back to Idaho and back to Texas, in seventy-nine. Because I was always the new kid in school, I didn’t make a lot of friends. I learned to stay to myself and keep away from the other people. I was a loner.”

From the time he recorded “Juke Joint Jumping” on his 1995 landmark debut album, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, Hancock has been known as the King of Juke Joint Swing, combining honky tonk, jazz, and rockabilly, a sound that has influenced artists today such as Pokey La Farge.

“When I hear Wayne,” says Austin, Texas-based acoustic-blues punk rocker Scott H. Briam, “I feel like I’m going back in the fifties when he’s singing. He has all kinds of influences and styles mixed in with his music. It’s not just country, it’s something else. He’s a savant as far as his music goes. He’s western swing, but I wouldn’t ever say Wayne “The Train” Hancock is a country artist. You can’t corner him.”

While Hancock has a distinct sound, he does follow closer to country themes in his vibrant narrative songs. His seminal work, “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs,” is visual, and makes one see music. In the song, Hancock uses his literary penchant, intelligence and unique arrangements to set a scene with strong imagery reminiscent of authors Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski. In “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs,” he takes the listener on the road, eventually stopping at a motel. The things that remind him of his childhood.

Hancock is also known for writing songs about cheating and violence. Characters end up dead more often than not in his songs, four minute movies that don’t let listeners feed into depression or sulk in their beer. He wraps up a complete story with dark humor within two hundred forty seconds. In the video for “I Killed Them Both,” from Slingin’ Rhythm (2016), he has a song about murder, and the killer’s contemplation of getting killed, or trying to escape, yet in the video, the victims are dolls getting killed in a doll house by a cap gun. Then, as the police move in, they are riding children’s toy cars. The killer dies after being shot at by a cop with a cap gun. The Hillbilly Hero somehow makes murder funny. Hard to imagine anyone else doing that.

 

“Lord Take My Pain”

Tulsa (2006)

The bipolar Hancock has struggled with substance abuse issues over the years and has spent time in and out of jail.  “I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I don’t drink anymore. I have extreme depression. Sometimes I feel worthless, like I don’t fit in. I know there are people who love my songs, but as a songwriter you want to be recognized by your peers. Sometimes I ask, Am I a failure? I imagine that’s how Townes and Guy Clark felt from time to time. True depression is knowing that suicide isn’t the answer. You just gotta fucking deal with it. It’s a horrible thing. I found out the hard way. A lady asked me if I ever thought about death. It’s stuff you don’t say. I said, No, but if I died tomorrow it wouldn’t bother me. She didn’t like that answer. Life is hard. I’m not going to kill myself. But I’m sure glad I’m not gonna live forever.”

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“Cold Lonesome Wind”

Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (1995)

From an early age, Hancock’s hero was Hank Williams Sr., the grandfather of country music. “Since the first time I heard Hank Williams in the late seventies,” Hancock says, “music has been the most important thing to me. My sister Becky went to Nashville on a school trip and returned with a Hank Williams record for my dad. He only listened to it once. I was twelve years old, trying to find my place in the world. I listened to ‘Lovesick Blues’ once and got chills. It was spiritual. I always try to chase that feeling, the musical high with my songs. I want other people to feel it. Hank helped me zero in. Music is a living, breathing thing. I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to keep it free.”

Through his career, Hancock has often been compared to Williams. On his debut album, Risin’ Outlaw (1999), Hank Williams III covered two songs from Hancock’s 1995 debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, the title track and “Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone.” He also recorded “’87 Southbound” from Hancock’s sophomore release, That’s What Daddy Wants. “The only other guy who has more Hank Williams in him than me is Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock,’ says Williams’ grandson Hank III. “Very few people can be real purists, Wayne is a purist all the way.”

“Cold Lonesome Wind” is one of the songs Hancock has written that follows most closely to the themes and vibe of Hank Williams songs. “When I wrote ‘Cold Lonesome Wind,’” Hancock says, “I was in the Marines on a six-month deployment at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan. My dad was [also] in the military. He was a World War II veteran and joined [right before Pearl Harbor; my parents met after the war]. ‘Cold Lonesome Wind’ was my dad’s favorite song. The night he died, I was playing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I did that song for him. It was a hard song to get through that night.”

 

“Waitin’ For The Day”

In the Beginning (2009)

From an early age, Van Zandt’s hero was Hank Williams Sr. Acclaimed author and historian Douglas Brinkley says Van Zandt, “is in a league with Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.” Van Zandt nodded to his idol by recording the song “Honky Tonkin’” on The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt. Additionally, on his early recording “Waitin’ for the Day,” William’s influence is evident, even down to the vocals.

 

“Waitin’ Around To Die”

Townes Van Zandt (1968)

Van Zandt’s songwriting draws most comparisons to Williams. He was twenty-four years old when he wrote his first song, “Waitin’ Around to Die,” a heartbreaking and perfect example of his kinship with Williams. “Townes Van Zandt got about as deep as you can get,” says grandson Hank III. “So sharp and sophisticated. That’s why there are a lot of comparisons to my grandfather.”

“When you’re dealing with a real serious blues type,” Van Zandt says in the 1993 documentary, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. “It’s generally a shade of human hope,” he continues. “[Hank Williams] had songs in which there is none and I have a couple in which there is none. There are some that I won’t even play. I wrote them and I played them once. Recorded it. Other than that, I don’t play them. Nobody needs to hear the blues that bad.”

“Railroad Blues”

A Town Blues, 1995

“When you really have the blues,” Wayne Hancock says, “sometimes you want to lay down and just cease to exist. When I wrote ‘Railroad Blues,’ I was in a dark place. I was twenty three years old, sitting in my house, didn’t have a girlfriend and went out to a club and wasn’t dressed properly. I had on jeans and a t-shirt. This was a coat-and-tie place. I couldn’t get in. There were all these beautiful women in there. People with money. I was embarrassed and wanted to get away from there as fast as I could. I went home to an empty house and was depressed. So, I drank. I did that a lot back then. I heard a freight train and went outside. There’s always one in the country. When it goes by, you get a very lonesome feeling.

The guy in ‘Railroad Blues’ goes on. The music’s upbeat and tells you that he’d be okay. It’s a reflection of things that have happened. He’s hopeful. It’s dark but written with lightness.  I write love songs when I don’t have anyone. That’s how I want my life to be. If you sing enough, you’ll start believing it. Next thing, you’re happy. I try to write songs that pull me up out of that hole and in the process help others too.”

 

“Highway 54”

That’s What Daddy Wants (1997)

“I write songs that have a moral sense,” Hancock says. “If a guy robs a bank, he’s either going to go to jail or get killed in a gun fight. Or if someone cheats? There’s no good way out of it. I take that and run with it. It’s dark humor. I [write] from that point of view.

‘Highway 54’ is graphic. I try to stay away from the dark, evil shit. You have to give people hope in songs. Everyone’s seen a bad car wreck. When they take the wreck off the road, they spray the blood off the highway. I have the image in my head. You don’t hear people talk about it in country music. It’s dark. I don’t like to see it and can’t get it out of my head.

 

“Pancho and Lefty”

The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (1972)

“I have a true story about how I came to write ‘Pancho and Lefty,’” Van Zandt explains in a Youtube clip. “I was playing a three-day show in Dallas, Texas. It so happened that on the same three days Billy Graham and the Maharishi guru were playing in Dallas. Billy Graham drew like five hundred thousand young Christians from all over the world. The guru had about two hundred and fifty thousand young gurus from all over the world and I had seven winos from downtown.

“Because of all these young Christians and gurus there were no hotel rooms anywhere fifty miles from Dallas. So my friend Daniel and I had to go fifty miles. We finally found this place and had no TV, no Coke Machine [and] a swimming pool that had a big crack in it. Not a very fun place. The second day we were there I just sat down in a chair and decided, Well, I’m not going to move from here until I write a song. I sat there for about three-and-a half-hours and ‘Pancho and Lefty’ kind of drifted through the window.” “[It’s] a song where I realize that I wrote it,” Van Zandt says in another clip, “but it’s a hard song to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue. It came through me.”

 

“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”

Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (1995)

“I wrote ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs’ shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas in 1990,” Hancock says. “I was twenty five years old. When I got to town, I was sleeping on my friend [drummer] T.J. McFarland’s couch. There was a big storm moving in. I went outside to see it. There was no way to see any lightening. Just city lights. I went inside and wrote the song. It just came to me. Sometimes songs fall out of heaven. Like they’re already written. I get it down with words. It’s a feeling, emotion. I can’t really explain it. Because I don’t understand it myself.”

“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs” is Wayne Hancock’s life today. He spends most of his time on the road “Slingin’ Rhythm” fifteen hours a week and sleeping in motels. When he isn’t on the road, he’s at his Trailer in North Texas. He has lived in trailers all of his adult life. “I live the way I do,” he says, “because I’d rather play for nothing to make sure the music is right. Not take money for money’s sake. When all is said and done, and you’re dead, nobody gives a shit how much money you left behind. The only thing you have is what you’ve written. It’s a testament to who you are.”

 

“I’ll Be Here in the Morning”

Townes Van Zandt (1968)

Van Zandt died New Year’s Day, 1997 after decades of substance abuse, forty-four years to the day after Hank Williams Sr. died at the age of twenty-nine. Van Zandt likely passed from a clot getting into his bloodstream and Delirium Termens, a fatal complication from alcohol withdrawal after being forced into the hospital to get his broken hip fixed. When he walked out of the hospital after surgery, he got into his ex-wife Jeanene Munsell’s car.  Van Zandt’s in the car and was shaking so badly he had trouble opening a bottle of liquor waiting for him in the vehicle. He died of a heart attack in his home in Smyrna, Tennessee. He was fifty-two years old.

“I started I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt to spread the word about the greatest songwriter who ever lived,” Atkinson says. “I’ve always said Townes would be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Paul Simon as touchstones of modern American songwriting within fifty years. Looks like it’s not gonna take that long after all. Hopefully, my Townes book has played some small part in that.”

Courtney S. Lennon

Courtney S. Lennon

Courtney S. Lennon is the founder and editor of Turnstyled, Junkpiled, the name taken from the Townes Van Zandt song. Courtney's interest and passion lies in Texas music. She has written features on Guy Clark, Wayne Hancock, Radney Foster, Rodney Crowell, Terry Allen, and Ryan Bingham to name a few. Courtney is the author of "Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver," a forthcoming book on legendary Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. She is also contributing to "For the Sake of the Song," a book outlining the songs of Texas Troubadour Townes Van Zandt.
Courtney S. Lennon

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