Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt, as told at the Troubadour, Los Angeles, CA, October 11, 2009

Tales from the Troubadour

Introduction to “Rex’s Blues”:

I had a friend, a teacher. His name was Townes. He was a songwriter, a folksinger, the best I ever saw.

He was a migratory beast. He summered in Colorado, did his winters in Texas and Tennessee. Those of us who lived along his migratory path, well we just waited with baited breath until he’d come around again next year.

He had a horse named Amigo, he kept in the Bronco Newcomb stable in Aspen, Colorado. Every summer he’d pick him up and he’d ride him across the mountain at Crested Butte. I was 17 years old when I met Townes. I thought that was the coolest thing that I’d ever heard of. Actually, I’m fifty-four and a half now, and I still think that’s the coolest thing.

But then the Seventies wound down. Times got hard, I guess. And Townes had to let Amigo go. It’s my belief that he began to die that day.

Several winters back, I made the trip backwards, from Crested Butte over to Aspen. Fifty-eight miles as the crow flies, but I ain’t no crow. It’s a hundred seventy-five, a hundred eighty by the highway. But we ran into a particularly tenacious little snowstorm, you know the kind. It took us eight and a half hours to make the ride. I couldn’t sleep so I wound up in the shotgun seat. Whilst the snow was blowing across the highway and the headlights looked like low flying ghosts, I swear to God I saw Townes and Amigo come over the mountain five times that night.

I thought I’d make me a record of Townes Van Zandt songs. This ain’t on it.

Intro to “Pancho and Lefty”:

Now when a fella’s gonna make him a record of Townes Van Zandt songs, you know you got your work cut out for you. I mean, the night before I started recording I had twenty-eight songs on the short list. I have no idea how I got it down to fifteen.

I met a guy from North Carolina that built guitars, and he said that you just kind of cut away everything that didn’t look much like a guitar. It was probably a similar process to that.

But I did know, once I decided to do this, what I was going to record first. You have to apply your own life experience to these things. The first day in jail, what you do, you go out in the yard, and you pick out the biggest motherfucker out there, and you knock him out. If you get away with that, then you get to keep your radio. So, applying that theory, I decided to record this first.

Intro to “Brand New Companion”:

If aliens were to land in West Hollywood tonight, and one walked straight up to me and stuck his raygun into my head, and said, “Quick, tell me about Townes Van Zandt,” I would say “Townes Van Zandt was a blues singer, sir.” By that I don’t necessarily mean that all of his songs consisted of an opening line that states an issue or problem, followed by a second line that reiterates the issue, followed by a third line that fails miserably to resolve it.

Townes and myself, and my other teacher Guy Clark, we can say that we were in Houston, Texas in the early 1970’s, and we saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. That, my friends, is a very big deal. If you don’t believe me, google it.

Townes used to say that there’s only three kinds of music. There’s the blues, and there’s zippity do da. This, my friends, is not zippity do da.

Intro to “Gold”:

I met Townes Van Zandt in 1972, eastern Texas. I’d been stalking him for a couple of years. We’d been in the same room on two occasions, but I was kind of shy.

I was playing the Old Quarter in downtown Houston, and I headed downstairs for my second set and Townes was sitting in the front row. Or to be more accurate, there were six people there that night, and Townes kind of was the front row.

He didn’t make a sound when I was actually singing and playing, but as soon as I finished a song he would yell “Play ‘The Wabash Cannonball'”. And despite his reputation for being all quiet and sensitive and everything, he could really be fucking loud sometimes.

He’d listen until the songs were over with, politely along with everyone else, and then immediately, “Play ‘The Wabash Cannonball.’ You call yourself a folk singer and you don’t know ‘The Wabash Cannonball?'”

In self-defense I played this.

Intro to “Marie”:

Townes grew up with a lot of money. He had a hard time dealing with it. He went to college, and fucked it up. Went again, someplace else, and fucked it up again. He could have gone a third time. His parents would have definitely paid for it. He didn’t understand why he had so much that he didn’t feel like he had earned.

He was notorious for bringing homeless people home with him, which contributed heavily to the demise of his first marriage. He continued that habit into the period when I met him, when he basically homeless himself, which meant that he was just traveling around staying with friends for about seven or eight years, in a barely big enough circle not to wear his welcome out. So that meant when he brought people home he was bringing them to other people’s houses. You could wake up in the morning and find Townes fucking gone, and somebody you didn’t know in your refridgerator or worse.

I hit a pretty rough spot myself a few years later, and before it was over I was homeless. Before it got to that point… I mean I should have known that it’s not a good sign if Townes Van Zandt shows up at your house to give you a temperance lecture.

The door was standing wide open. I never locked the place because everything that was worth anything, or just about everything, was already at the pawn shop.

Townes was playing the last guitar that I had, sitting on the couch, when I walked in the door, and he said, “You look like shit.” I said, “I know.” He said, “Your arms really look like shit.” I said, “I know.” He said, “Well, you got clean needles?” I said, “Yeah,” which was true. He said, “Every time?” I said, “Yeah.” [He said,] “All right then, let me play this song that I just wrote.”


10 comments for “Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt”

  1. Hay Steve
    are you that skinny kid that took care of Fritz old morgan horse Blackie? or whom ever.

    The summer Townes visited me I opened the Pomegranate Riding Stables this side of Aspen every May. The building was a eight pole building made out of twelve inch logs fifteen feet long set on end five feet down in the ground in a circle four feet apart like a fort. It was covered with plywood. It looked like a two story old Chinese Rocket. I keep the saddles and tack downstairs and lived upstairs. We constructed it in two weeks. I had 20 acres out front in Fidel Fifer’s field for the horse grazing. That June some time Townes calls me he was in Aspen. Townes’ horse Amigo was a big brown Applause Mustang who had split his hoof on the way down from Maroon Bells traveling. As the bird flies it’s about 60 miles up over 13 thousand feet, its about one and half day ride from Crested Butte to Aspen.

    Previously that winter in Nashville I invited Skinny Dennis (of Guy Clark Fame) to come out to help that summer with the horses and breakfast rides. Dennis was a really tall and super skinny Spanish looking Mexican. He looked like Don Quixote. He had a bad heart do to Rheumatic fever when he was a child – he only had a few years to live, he knew it. I think he died at 32 years of age. He could have extended his life but chose to go out partying. Dennis was the Bass player for a lot of us Bishops All American Pub Pickers in Nashville. I had set Dennis up with a camp under the Aspens and Cottonwood trees by a irrigation ditch across Fidel Fifer’s big field. We go to pick Townes up, on the way back down we stopped at Aspen Drug for supplies`where we ran into old John Denver. I introduced Townes and Dennis to John. John said he had heard of Townes. That made Townes’ day. It was amazing, this all happened in 48 hours. After we picked up Townes, we set him up over at the camp. After work we four – my girlfriend Lauren, Townes, Dennis, and I – went into town. Lauren and I came home partied out and went to bed. Those Clowns partied then at 3:am or so when they lit off a few strings of firecrackers. The Stables was located on the far end of the Pomegranate Inn, a fancy hotel resort. I screamed out you guys are going to get me kicked out of here they laughed, looked sheepish and wobbled off. I will never forget seeing old tall Skinny Dennis and Townes stumbling across the field to the tent by the irrigation ditch, flashlights in hand.

    The next morning their palms were bandaged. Towns and Dennis had cut there palms to become Indian blood Brothers. I said Dennis how you going to cook? I could see pain in his eyes but pain didn’t bother those guys or slow him down. Townes by this time had found the guitar and was serenading Lauren and drinking Coffee .

    We all went to work wrangling tourists up and down Buttermilk Mountain. Townes did a couple rides himself – he was good on a horse. That night we were all in good spirits. Townes and Dennis had a party going on the way they used to do. We all ended up in Jakes Abby, a cellar music club. They had Hoot night there and we all sang and was having great fun. At about closing time Townes pulls out this knife and asked if anyone would like to become “blood brothers?” I took the knife away grabbed him by the back of his shirt, drug him upstairs and out to the street and slapped the hell out of him. Poor old Townes. All was good the next morning though and all was not remembered. Later in the afternoon LE Wheeler, an old cowboy from Gunnison Colorado (I rented my horses from him), showed up. LE, Skinny Dennis and Townes hit it off right away they were drinking, laughing, and shooting dice. Townes lost his money and he wanted to trade his saddle but LE wouldn’t take it. Towns met his match with LE.Wheeler, king of the horse traders. Everyone was low on money by this time so we all went over to the Aspen mall where we played music and passed the hat on the street. We made a gob of money and drank it all up.

    Amigo, the horse had been fitted with a beefed up horse shoe and he was sound. Townes soon left for his other camp in Crested Butte as the bird flies. It winds on an ancient old Ute Indian trail up then down to a camp he had on a Butte. We should find out where it was. Dennis in the meantime had been adopted by Candy, the owner of the Pomegranate Inn’s daughter. We worked out the rest summer.

    I went back to Nashville along with my best girl Lauren, went through another season at Bishops All American Pub, then back to the stables in Aspen. This summer Townes brought a Red headed Gal – her name was Cindy I think. They stayed for a few days camping then went back over the mountains. That was the last time I saw Townes.

    Ya I sing Poncho and Lefty too.

    Lets Find his camp in Crested Butte.

    Talk to ya later
    Bronco Newcomb

    Posted by Bronco Newcomb | February 24, 2010, 10:02 am
  2. Bronco, thanks for sending your stories about Townes! Jeff

    Posted by admin | February 25, 2010, 12:19 am
  3. You should hear about the Austin visit.
    Ill write it down one of these days.

    Posted by Bronco Newcomb | April 27, 2010, 8:25 pm
  4. Great – looking forward to hearing about it!

    Posted by admin | April 27, 2010, 9:32 pm
  5. Why is it every story I hear about Townes either ends up with me howling in laughter or crying like a baby?

    Posted by Coyote Trickster | June 25, 2010, 12:15 pm
  6. i am in crested butte for the summer and just missed steve earle, as i had to return to texas unexpectedly for a funeral. i hopped on the internet to satisfy my curiosity about what songs townes wrote while in crested butte. i stumbled across this bronco newcomb story. this made my night. while i have no desire to live out townes songs (well, maybe a little), i sure do love them and i love the stories behind his crazy life. thank you so much for making my night. let me know if you are still in aspen at all. i would love to come ride with you before we head back to texas in mid sept. troy

    Posted by troy | August 16, 2010, 9:57 pm
  7. Bronco’s Visit to Townes Van Zandt’s Home.

    One time Mickey White, Townes’ constant companion, and superb lead guitar picker, invited me to a gig in Austin. So I thought it would be Fun. I caught a cheap bus from Nashville and headed to Austin with my guitar in hand. Outlaw Country music was just starting to happen. I showed up at around 11 pm and Mickey came and picked me up. We went to the gig and there was Townes, I think. Rex Bell was playing the bass, Richard Dobson, Mickey and the others.

    We played till closing and headed over to Townes’ home. I remember you could look over a wash and see the College. I arrived at Townes’ place which was a 35 foot motor home with about 6 bunks in it. It had a kitchen bathroom and the back living room or the gambling room. Our whole gang was still partying and drinking, they were all so happy because the had lured a couple drunk amateur gamblers in after the gig to play poker, Texas hold em and between Mickey and Richard, Townes and Rex it would not be long before the fellows were out of funds.

    I remember being in the top bunk about to go to sleep and someone was gathering money for a liquor run. Going to the liquor store the sun was just about to rise. It was so much fun to hang out with those guys that you didn’t mind being drunk all the time. There was always smoking and drink aplenty. They parked next to Uncle Semour and during the day we would sit around and drink and play music cook. There were lots of beautiful loose ladies around partying with the rest of us. Once a week the fellows could get this wonderful cough medicine they loved. Then would proceed to get fall down drunk. I saw poor old Richard take a dive from the top step of that Winnebago to the ground – it was so comical, I couldn’t stop laughing, I thought he was dead but he got right up and hadn’t felt any pain. In the meantime Mickey, Townes, and Rex were in the back with a couple of oil types gambling away.

    Townes’ home was within walking distance from the college. I thought I just might stay awhile. So I got to talking to this cute Blond who lived right down there next to Uncle Semour’s. I asked if she would have a room to rent? She said ya for 15 dollars a day, I went right down and and started cleaning my room. That night some fellows came to the door asking for this gal. I thought it was weird as it was around 3am. I didn’t know where she was and told them so. I went back to bed. The next day a fellow came and kicked me out. He said he was her Pimp get out and don’t come back.
    After all that work. I went up to the fellows and told them the story they laughed and went back to cooking. I said you guys could told me about that gal and you sure live in a good neighborhood. We all then went over to the Amarillo to watch Willy. The next few days are a blur but filled with fun I know. Those guys were like being with clowns 24/7. And well worth the dough. Had to call Mom to send me money to get out there .


    Posted by Bronco Newcomb | April 16, 2011, 9:36 pm
  8. Bronco is my dad. I have been active in the studio business for the past 6 years. Seeing, and hearing these great stories are the threads that make up the fabric of music history.

    Thanks to all


    Posted by Buzz Cadenhead | April 17, 2011, 6:18 pm
  9. I am sitting here in my normal holiday blues listening to Steve at the Austin city blues and I am thankfull to Bronco for sharing his memory of Townes. I grew up in mountains of Colorado but was only a child. If only I was a few years older I would have been whole with a friend like Townes. Please share more about Townes , if you can. Thank you

    Posted by Robert lowery | November 25, 2011, 4:54 pm
  10. In the 70’s Aspen was the coolest place in the world. Extraordinary people came here to pretend they were ordinary. You could still ride your horse into the bar.
    It’s still a pretty cool place but there ain’t much room for cowboys and mountain men anymore.
    Townes would have written the ballad of Jim Blanning

    Posted by michael ferrara | March 22, 2013, 10:43 am

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