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For the last seven years, on New Year’s Day, a loose but growing group of local musicians and songwriters has come together to celebrate the songs of late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt, a brilliant but troubled country and blues artist, enjoyed only middling success during his lifetime but has received increased attention and appreciation since his death in 1997 at age 52. Apart from “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty,” both of which became hits for other artists, the mainstream never really embraced his dark, poetic, and haunting music.
Nevertheless, Van Zandt was, and still remains, an influential songwriter – from Texas to Tennessee. The quintessential songwriter’s songwriter, his songs “To Live Is to Fly,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “For the Sake of the Song,” and “Rex’s Blues,” among others, loom large in the folk and country traditions.
It is no surprise, then, that the annual tribute show organized by songwriter John Whipple has taken root with local songsmiths of varying age, background, and genre.
This year’s Jan. 1 tribute show, held on the anniversary of Van Zandt’s death, will feature more than 30 performers scheduled to take the stage beginning at 7 p.m. at The Pigpen, located at 106 Pershing Ave. in Mahncke Park.
Whipple, who hosts a weekly songwriters night called TuNesday, currently held at The Pigpen, has been in the music business as a player and writer, as an organizer and promoter for nearly 50 years.
He first saw Van Zandt, he said, at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1973. “I was already writing songs, but that was an eye opener for me,” he said.
“It changed my take on what songwriting could be,” he said. “It’s as much or more about the poetry as being catchy or accessible.”
“I cried while hearing ‘Tecumseh Valley’ for the first time,” Whipple said, “and I was trying to hide it from a friend I was with. … Years later, my friend told me he was doing the same thing.”
In Whipple’s estimation, Van Zandt is “unique in the level of humanity and poetry in his songs.”
“For him, writing songs was not about money, it was about the magic and the poetry, which I think is part of the connection that people in our scene and others have with him,” he said.
Throughout Van Zandt’s career, and for those performing at the tribute show, whether new or returning contributors, Van Zandt’s “songs speak for him, they speak for themselves and they speak for the magic of songwriting,” Whipple said.
While this city isn’t the only place with a New Year’s Day Van Zandt tribute show – Houston and Terlingua are both robust examples in Texas – he said that San Antonio “has a special claim” to Van Zandt.
“San Antonio was important to Townes and, outside of Austin or Houston or Nashville, there’s not a whole lot of places he played more,” Whipple said.
For Whipple, the best part of these tribute shows, aside from the music, is the sense of community that exists among the performers.
“In the singer-songwriter world,” he said, “it is a badge of honor to know about Townes and to play some of his songs. … It’s almost like a little cult.”
Jim Beal Jr., a musician and longtime music writer for the San Antonio Express-News, will perform the song “St. John the Gambler” with his group Miss Nessie & the Tin Can Trio.
Beal, who interviewed Van Zandt on a few occasions over the years and reports having seen him perform live more than 25 times, also mentioned the sense of community surrounding the yearly tribute.
“The brotherhood and sisterhood is almost too much for a cranky guy like me,” he chuckled.
He first saw Van Zandt while on a date with his then girlfriend, now his wife of more than 40 years, at a coffeehouse on San Pedro Avenue called The Good News.
“I was fascinated,” Beal said, “by the way [Van Zandt] would sing about topics that other people at the time weren’t necessarily approaching.”
“He told good stories and bad jokes,” Beal said, noting Van Zandt’s ability to switch between crude humor and melancholy mysticism.
On the other end of the age spectrum, Gloria Anderson, a young San Antonio singer-songwriter studying music at Nashville’s Belmont University, is a recent convert to Van Zandt’s music who is playing the tribute for the first time. She’ll be interpreting the song “Don’t Take it Too Bad.”
After her father played “Pancho and Lefty” for her a few years ago, she began listening to Van Zandt’s music seriously, impressed by his “genuine, truthful, and raw writing.”
It “caught my ear and has changed my view of writing forever,” she said.
“As an 18-year-old songwriter who has been told to write more upbeat songs, I am appreciative of his honest writing,” she said.
“Today, everything is so instant — it is nice to slow down and listen to a Townes song because they are real. … Life isn’t always upbeat.”
She is eager to contribute to this event that she sees as a celebration of Van Zandt’s life.
“I think it shows how much of an influence he has on the world of music,” she said of the tribute show. “He lives on through his music, which is beautiful for the beginning of the new year.”