Book Review: I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt
Like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt has become half man, half myth since his death on New Year’s Day, 1997. I’ll Be Here in the Morning, an oral history compiled by Brian T. Atkinson, who’s written for The Austin American-Statesman, No Depression, and numerous other publications, helps to humanize the legend that looms over country and roots music.
The 40-some chapters of the book feature interviews of Van Zandt’s friends, like Guy Clark, his peers, and younger songwriters such as Grace Potter and Scott Avett. Though Townes disciple Steve Earle, he of the famous proclamation that “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my boots and say that,” did not contribute to the book, his absence is no detriment thanks to the quality of Atkinson’s interviews with artists like Rodney Crowell and Billy Joe Shaver.
The affection and respect these artists have for Van Zandt is obvious on every page; however, I’ll Be Here in the Morning does not deify Townes. There are moments, especially when discussing Van Zandt’s struggles with addiction, that are painful and brutally honest. And sometimes they’re funny, like this anecdote from Billy Joe Shaver’s chapter about his wife, Brenda:
Brenda just hated Townes so bad, but she got cancer, you know, and she died in 1999. The doctor told me this one time that she probably wouldn’t last the night. In my last desperation, I told her that I had a dream that she went to heaven, and Townes was there to meet her. She says, “By God, I’m gonna live. And she did. She lived for another year.
Though each chapter covers different times and different songs, there is one similarity: many of the interview subjects can pinpoint the first time they heard Townes Van Zandt’s music (Kasey Chambers’ first was “Pancho and Lefty). It’s a lovely reminder of a lyric’s ability to move when it hits a person at the right time and place. Or, as Jim James says about his experience with listening to Van Zandt’s music, it grabs hold “when the universe somehow knows [you’re] ready.”
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