Willie & Townes: In which Mr. Nelson schools the columnist

By J. DANIEL CLOUD,

One of my favorite aspects of journalism is getting to meet interesting people. That does not mean, of course, that every interview is interesting.

I’m not certain whether it’s a bragging point, or if I deserve demerits, but I once fell asleep while interviewing then-U.S. Senator Bill Frist, of Tennessee.

In my defense, he wasn’t very interesting, and I didn’t want to do the interview in the first place.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was managing editor of a small weekly arts and entertainment newspaper in Chattanooga, Tenn.

One of the last things I did for that paper (The Chattanooga Outlook) was to drive to Tampa, Fla., to meet Willie Nelson.

He was going to be in my city the following week, and we wanted an interview and photos to be on newsstands when he showed up. I did not know at the time that in a couple of weeks, I would be replaced by yet another ad salesman.

When I was asked in a job interview a few weeks later, what I had been doing lately, I showed my prospective employer the article and photos. He had two major questions:

1—Did I really think it was necessary to drive 600 miles for an interview, when a phone call would probably have been sufficient?

And 2—Did I get to share Willie’s weed?

To answer the second question first: No, I didn’t. I was looking for a job, didn’t use marijuana anyway, and either way, Willie didn’t exactly offer. (Gestured suggestions don’t count.)

And to answer the first question: If somebody comps you tickets to a Willie Nelson show, with probable back-stage access and a potential interview? Yes. That’s necessary. Go. Don’t phone it in.

“You’re certainly qualified for the job,” Mr. Espy told me. “I might not give it to you, though. You were on Willie Nelson’s tour bus and didn’t smoke with him? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

I got the job, as writer and photographer for a north Georgia daily newspaper. I don’t think Espy ever quite forgave me for that one, though. He was a huge music fan, and I learned a great deal about music (and writing) from him.

One thing I got to teach Espy, though, was the importance of Townes Van Zandt in American music.

It goes a little something like this:

Willie Nelson played for more than three hours, packing most of his catalog into that time. He’d do medleys of three or four songs in five minutes, then move on to the next batch. But one song he sang in its entirety was one of my favorites, “Pancho and Lefty”. (That, “Whiskey River”, and “I Never Cared For You”, from the amazing album Teatro, are the only songs I remember hearing all of. But again, this was almost two decades ago.)

After the show, he signed autographs and took photos with fans for about two more hours. By the time my co-worker and I got on the tour bus, it was well after 1 a.m. Probably after 2. And he was tired. He’s a certified antique now, but even in 2000-2001 he was in his late 60s.

I was there principally as a photographer, though I continued taking notes for the interview. Never hurts to be able to compare notes.

I asked if it would be possible to see Trigger, Willie’s famous guitar, the one he’s played so much that he’s worn a hole through the top. I wanted to do a portrait of Trigger.

“I’m afraid Trigger has gone to bed,” he told me. “He’s almost as old as me.”

So I asked about “Pancho and Lefty”, one of the most famous songs in the Willie Nelson catalog.

“What exactly is that song about, anyway? What inspired it?”

And that’s when he told me he didn’t write that song. That it was written by Townes Van Zandt.

“Who?”

You know you’ve screwed up when Willie Nelson puts down his joint and sighs at you. But you know you asked a good question, that admitting ignorance isn’t always a bad thing, when that question leads one of America’s national music treasures to say, “Can you go get Trigger, please?” to one of his people.

Willie played and quietly sang a few lines of “Pancho and Lefty”, then continued, playing a slow version of “Tecumseh Valley” while talking about his friend.

Come to find out, Townes had died just a couple of years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1997.

He told me which albums to find, which songs he thought were the best, and why he believed Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. I won’t quote him here, because I don’t have my notebooks or tape recordings from 19 years ago, but essentially: Townes wrote true songs. As true as a bipolar alcoholic-addict who came from money but hated fame could write.

The next morning, after sleeping for a few hours, my co-worker and I were a little stunned by the fact that we got to meet Willie Nelson, but we still had to drive back to Tennessee. Develop the film, lay out the issue, put the thing to bed.

Couple of weeks later, I was out of a job, which led to my next newspaper gig – with an editor-in-chief who knew and understood Willie, although he did occasionally complain that Nelson “had been known to sing the back-side of a shampoo bottle”.

He also loved Steve Earle, and Guy Clark, and he knew that Townes Van Zandt was sorta Earle’s mentor.

Espy introduced me to Earle’s music. I introduced him and some other coworkers to Townes Van Zandt. One of them wrote on my copy tape, “I do love this poor suffering SOB.”

Now, regarding “Pancho and Lefty”.

Willie told me personally that even he didn’t know the story behind the song, although it’s one of his best-known story-songs. (There was some speculation that the song could be about Pancho Villa, but that theory has been largely debunked.)

Matter of fact, he said, Townes told Willie that he personally didn’t know what the song means, or even where it came from. Townes is on record as saying he wrote the song, and that he thought it was a really pretty song, but that it came to him out of nowhere.

I don’t remember what Bill Frist thought was so important that he spent a good bit of our time together talking on the phone, leading me to fall asleep on a U.S. Senator’s office couch in Tennessee. And I could not care less.

Because you know what? Willie Nelson introduced me to Townes Van Zandt’s music.

He was generous with his time, with his knowledge, and in a very intimate way, with his music. I got to do photos of Trigger, one of the most famous guitars in existence.

For one of your idols to be willing to overlook your ignorance, to allow you to be one of about three people at a mini-concert, to introduce you to a younger musician who he somewhat idolizes as a songwriter: That is a true gift, indeed. Thank you, Willie Nelson.

J. Daniel Cloud is a Hattiesburg resident. It would be hard for him to select a favorite song, but near the top of the list would be Townes Van Zandt’s ‘To Live is to Fly’ – “Everything is not enough. And nothin' is too much to bear. Where you been is good and gone. All you keep's the getting there.”