Townes van Zandt was born in 1944 to a wealthy family. Having spent two years in a private military school, he attended the University of Colorado. In his second semester he was invited to a social event at his father’s old fraternity. He turned up late, having drunk several bottles of wine, wearing only a pair of jeans with his pledge pin threaded through his skin, causing his naked torso to be streaked with blood.
In 1975, Steve Earle attended Jerry Jeff Walker’s birthday party in Houston. At 3:00 a.m., Tones van Zandt arrived, wearing a “gorgeous” white buckskin jacket that Jerry Jeff Walker had given him for his own birthday two weeks earlier. Townes van Zandt immediately started a crap game and within 45 minutes had lost all his money and the jacket, at which point he left.
Soon afterwards, Steve Earle started playing regularly at a bar called The Old Quarter. The audience rarely numbered in double figures. One evening, Townes van Zandt came to the show, sat in the front row with his feet on the stage and between every song demanded that Steve Earle play “The Wasbah Cannonball”. Eventually Steve Earle admitted he didn’t know the song to which Townes van Zandt retorted “Call yourself a fuckin’ folk singer and you don’t know ‘The Wasbah Cannonball’!” Steve Earle responded by playing a word perfect version of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”, a song from Townes van Zandt’s fifth album, “High, Low And In Between”, released in 1972, which consists of 13 verses. For once, Townes van Zandt was speechless.
Steve Earle’s version of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” on his tribute album, “Townes” is taken at such a fast pace that the whole song only lasts a little over two minutes. Ostensibly, this is a song about two men playing cards but, in reality, it’s about a pack of cards playing two men. It’s something like a Greek tragedy in which the gods play with mortals’ fates without their human playthings being aware of the gods’ plans. The card-gods inspire two men, Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd, to play a game of stud and they make sure the greedy Mr. Gold has a winning streak, beating the “wretched fool” Mudd, hand after hand. However, the Queen of Diamonds start to feel compassion for the doomed Mr. Mudd and interferes with the deals to ensure that, against the odds, he wins it all. In the final verse, the moral of the story is “If you feel like mud, you’ll end up gold. If you feel like lost, you’ll end up found.” Townes van Zandt comes to precisely the opposite conclusion than the one which, by all reason, he should reach. It’s the gambler’s fallacy, the notion that a losing streak mean’s you’re “due” and you should keep taking risks no matter how much you’ve lost. Townes Van Zandt’s friends and family must have felt much the same way, only more so, as they watched him continue to tempt fate and push his luck beyond the breaking point with his various addictions, which finally killed him on New Year’s Day, 1997, at the age of 52.
“Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” is the 13th song on “Steve Earle’s album “Townes” and is even more tragic than it was when released, since it is sung as a duet between Steve Earle and his son, Justin Townes Earle, who died in 2020, aged 38, due to an accidental overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine.
Steve Earle has now recorded four “tribute” albums: “Townes” in 2019, “Guy” (for Guy Clark) in 2019, “J.T.” (for his son, Justin Townes Earle) in 2021 and “Jerry Jeff” (for Jerry Jeff Walker) in 2022.
Townes van Zandt never had any spare cash. At the end of a gig in Austin, he was paid $160. He gave each of his three band members $30, he gave $20 to Steve Earle, who had opened for him, and said “I’ll keep the rest for myself”, at which point he put a $50 note in his mouth and swallowed it.
Townes van Zandt’s most well known song is “Pancho And Lefty” (originally called “Poncho And Lefty”) and was released on Townes van Zandt’s sixth album, “The Late Great Townes van Zandt” in 1972. In the first of four verses Lefty is introduced as a young man who leaves home to seek his fortune in Mexico where, in the second verse, he becomes friends with a Mexican bandit called Pancho. Lefty is paid by the Mexican security force (“federales”) to betray Pancho. After the federales hang Pancho, Lefty returns to Ohio, where he grows old in cheap hotels without his friend from Mexico. The chorus of the song is “All the federales say they could have had him any day. They only let him hang around out of kindness, I suppose” which is a pun on hang/hang out.
When Steve Earle came to record “Townes”, he started by recording the songs with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Bass, drums, percussion, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, harmonica and harmonium were added later. The album was released as a double CD, one with the original recordings and the second with the extra instrumentation. Both versions are sensational and the harmonium and mandolin on “Pancho And Lefty” are particularly effective.
“Pancho And Lefty” has been covered by over 50 other artists, including Willie Nelson/ Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan and Mia Doi Todd.
“Rake” was released on Townes van Zandt’s fourth album, “Delta Momma Blues”, released in 1970. The song describes a man who, in his youth, was a charming womaniser but, in later life, is married and unhappy. The first verse is “My body was sharp, my dark hair clean and outrage my joyful companion and whispering women, how sweet did they seem, kneeling for me to command them.” By the final verse he is transformed. “I buried my face, but it spoke once again. The night to the day we’re a-binding and now the dark air is like fire on my skin and even the moonlight is blinding.” The two versions of this song by Steve Earle are spellbinding. The arranged version has swelling violin and keyboard parts which accentuates the deep emotions felt by the protagonist and the solo version spotlights the decline of a flawed and possibly deeply unpleasant character. Written when Townes van Zandt was 26 years old, it’s not clear how much Townes van Zandt foresees his future in this tale.
My favourite song on “Townes” is “To Live Is To Fly” which Townes van Zandt claimed to have written in its entirety while sleeping. Townes van Zandt’s gravestone is engraved with the title to this song. It was first released on “High, Low And In Between” in 1972. Steve Earle has one of the great rock voices and this song is perfectly suited to the style and intonation of his delivery. Whether with a band or by himself, he manages to wring every drop of emotion from this song.
“Well I may be gone
But it won’t be long
I’ll be a-bringin’ back the melody
And rhythm that I find”