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Talking Townes with Jeanene Van Zandt

by Rich and Laura Lynch

It's been five years since our first sit down meeting with Jeanene Van Zandt who is the devoted widow of the legendary and mythical musician and songwriter Townes Van Zandt. So, we paid a return visit to "The Ponderosa" in Smyrna, Tennessee on September 14, 2023 to learn - thanks in large part to her savvy business decisions over the decades - that the music of TVZ remains very much alive and well in these changing and tumultuous times even a quarter of a century on from his untimely yet not fully unexpected passing on New Year's Day in 1997.

These albums are the most recent two offerings on the Townes Van Zandt website.

The first item of note that we wanted to discover was if there was an up-tick in interest surrounding the Townes catalog during the pandemic crisis and lockdown period since those crazy days were marked by a specter of despair, gloom and melancholy for much of the world population. In many ways the music of Townes Van Zandt seemed a fitting soundtrack to these times as he is credited with writing some of the saddest songs ever to be recorded.

"I think sales went up from the web page," Jeanene revealed before adding. "But, Townes has really been Steady Eddie - that's what I call him."

Still, new fans have been discovering him through the use of emerging technology. One look at his Spotify page reveals over 800,000 monthly visitors with his top 10 tracks on the streaming site receiving well over 100 million total plays. His own offspring are playing a big part in introducing his songs to a new audience.

"Katie Belle is out there herself an ambassador as well to a younger generation," Jeanene added before observing that, "his songs will last forever. They're timeless."

"My whole career basically is keep up with the technology and every time there is a new format I need to redo all the records," Jeanene revealed continuing the thought on how the distribution methods keep evolving before telling us that we might even soon see Townes music in an archaic packaging. "I got a request through a publishing channel for 8-Tracks and I had to write them back asking 8-Tracks are coming back?"

Since the music of Townes Van Zandt is very poetic and often cinematic in its scope and portrayal of a variety of troubled characters and down on their luck protagonists we wondered if there had been any interest in a TVZ biopic, life story or movie based on his songs.

This poster was signed by all the artists who played the first and only Townes Fest in Smyrna.

"That would be nice. I haven't gotten any offers yet but I'm open to it," Jeanene enthused. "I've got a beautiful script for 'Pancho and Lefty' - it's beautiful. It's got Townses' family history woven into it. The people's names are people who were in his life. It's beautiful."

The talk of Townes on the big screen did lead to a related conversation about one of Townes' best friends - a fellow Texan singer-songwriter named Blaze Foley who like Van Zandt lived hard and died young. Jeanene did say that Townes was portrayed on the big screen in a 2018 movie made about Foley simply titled Blaze by the musician Charlie Sexton. Mike Judge covered the same subject matter a year earlier in his animated series Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus - Blaze Foley that also featured an animated cameo by Jeanene.

Since our first visit Jeanene has remained busy mining the Townes vaults and regaining control over the publishing rights to her husband's prolific body of work. Sky Blue was recorded in 1973 but not released until 2019 in all formats. The tracks were captured from a session at the Atlanta, Georgia, home studio of Bill Hedgepeth - a journalist, musician and longtime friend of Van Zandt and consists of 11 previously unreleased recordings, including two tracks which had never been released, "All I Need" and "Sky Blue." In his analysis of the album, NPR's Jim Allen considered it a document of Van Zandt's best work.

However, it is a document of Townes Van Zandt's final work that Jeanene is most proud of.

Townes Van Zandt's Grammy-nominated posthumous 1999 release A Far Cry From Dead has recently come out on vinyl after a long journey to return to the property of the estate.

Van Zandt recorded the vocal and guitar takes for the album from the late 80s through the early 90s at Texhoma Music Group Studio, the late singer's next door neighbor's home studio in Nashville, and Jack Clement's Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. Townes left the tapes to Jeanene Van Zandt, who worked with producer Eric Paul to bring the songs to life with a full band including keyboard player Larry Knechtel (The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, the Doors, The Birds, Elvis Presley), percussionist Kenny Malone (Ray Charles, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, etc.), and Charlie McCoy (Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings) among others.

This painting of Townes hangs prominently on the walls of The Ponderosa.

A Far Cry From Dead was the first of Townes' records to be released on a major label, though the sordid story of its rise and fall is one of many music industry fumbles in the meeting of the CD and early internet era at the turn of the century. That story is outlined by Jeanene Van Zandt below. What was lauded by many critics at the time as some of Townes' finest vocal work recorded has finally seen the light of day in LP format to the delight of Townes fans everywhere.

"When we were making Far Cry, we worked mostly on weekends and Holidays to get the studio cheaper. We kept the doors locked and worked in secret from the public. So, it didn't take long for a buzz to start around Music Row and the new subdivision at Arista, Arista Austin, was just getting off the ground and they heard that Eric Paul was working with me on something Townes.

The day we put the finishing touches on the record and were done, Eric asked me, what are you going to do with it, who are you going to pitch it to?

"I said, "Townes will send me the right people... let's go to lunch."

As we were walking into the restaurant Eric's flip phone rang and it was Scott Robinson from Arista Austin asking about the project and asking that he bring it to them first, so he took it to them the next day, a Friday. Early Monday Scott called and said they wanted it. Townes and I had a pact that his records would never be sold outright ever again, and we had been putting them out under limited licenses. So, I told them it would have to be a license and I would get it back. We settled on 20 years, when we usually did 3 to 5 years. The record came out and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album of the Year. We lost to Bob Dylan, again.

The first single "Ain't Leavin' Your Love" was the first song Townes wrote for me. It was shooting up the Americana Charts and was #13 with a bullet. It was playing in my car, it was playing when I went into my convenience store... it was so exciting. Townes had never gotten airplay like this!

Arista was ready to release a second single, "To Live's to Fly," and I went down to their office to celebrate and help pack up CDs to send out when the phone rang in Scott's office. When he came out almost in tears, everything changed. He said Germany called (the owners) and said they were shutting down his division and to close up shop immediately.

The spirit of Townes Van Zandt is alive and well inside of TVZ Central in Tennessee.

People were crying, and I was confused. What just happened!?!

It's over they said and gave me all the promo materials and put it on a cart and loaded it into my car.

The record had a 3 month life, only on CD. SONY took it over and put it in their record club division (in the basement). After many years I finally convinced them to put it up for download, shortly afterward we got the opening track with "Dollar Bill Blues" for the movie "Hell or High Water". Shortly thereafter the license ran out and it was returned to me."

As this story reveals, Jeanene has put in a lot of effort and elbow grease to regain nearly a 100 percent stake in virtually all of the mechanical and songwriting publishing rights associated with the music of Townes Van Zandt. We were curious with all the lottery type sums recently making headlines from the sale of famous portfolios - including most recently the songs of Graham Nash or the half billion Bruce Springsteen received from Sony Music in 2021 - if she had received, or would entertain, any offers to give up control of the catalog.

"I think everyone knows it's not for sale," Jeanene concluded.

What will be for sale next from the Townes Van Zandt website is the latest project that has kept Jeanene and family busy in recent months is the discovery she made from restoring the master tapes to the 1987 Townes Van Zandt album At My Window that she is prepping for release as a new, stand alone project most likely in early 2024. She found that the post-baking process revealed three recorded takes each of the original album's 10 songs plus 3 never before heard tracks.

"It's doesn't even sound like the same record. I am thinking of replacing it," Van Zandt added. "It just turned out so beautiful. It doesn't even sound like At My Window at all."

We'll be sure to be on the lookout for that one!

Jeanene Van Zandt said that a re-issued version of this much loved record is the next TVZ project on the way.

Related Links: For more information on TOWNES VAN ZANDT and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - Townes Van Zandt | Jeanene Van Zandt: She's Been There to Love Him


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