J.T. Van Zandt remembers just about every detail of his first visit to his father's world. Townes and J.T.'s mother, Fran, had divorced before he was a year old, and until he was 9, J.T. only saw his father when Townes came to Houston to see his own mother. This was J.T.'s first "unsupervised" trip to Nashville, and he would later call the hellish rite of passage "the first awakening of my adulthood."
In 1978, Townes was living in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack in the low hills south of town. The shack was unheated and had no indoor plumbing. Townes shared the cabin with his beautiful, red-haired, teen-age wife, Cindy, and Geraldine, a huge, keenly intelligent half-wolf, half-husky. A Cherokee named Michael Ewaugh lived in another shack nearby; he could be as wild as Townes.
His father hid nothing from J.T.--not the drinking, not the heroin. "He did his best to scare me to death," J.T. remembers. "It was pretty grotesque, a frightening eye-opener to the lifestyle of a songwriter to a suburban Houston kid." Townes also badgered J.T. with unanswerable questions. "He was real confrontational with me. He would ask me questions about what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and there was no right answer."
One such was this dilemma: Did young J.T. want Townes to buy him a BB gun or a guitar? In a way, this simple question, which is probably answered more or less peaceably and undramatically thousands of times a day across America, defined the two generations of Van Zandts. Townes chose the guitar. J.T.--so far, anyway--has chosen the BB gun, though even now, more than 20 years later, he's still wavering.
It all happened the second day of J.T.'s visit. He woke up and walked out on the front porch and saw a drunken tableau down in the little hollow below. Townes and Ewaugh were trying to shoot a mourning dove off a wire with Ewaugh's BB gun. (Ewaugh flew hawks, and he wanted the dove for his pet raptor's breakfast.) Townes would take a potshot at the dove, miss, then trade the rifle to Ewaugh for the fifth of vodka they were nipping on. "I sat there and watched them from the front porch, and I could see they were so far off that the bird wasn't even moving," J.T. remembers. "And they were standing right below the wire. So I walked up, and after they took a few more shots and a few more swigs off the bottle, I offered up my services.
"First shot, right through the head. In one eyeball and out through the top of its head. The bird just turned upside down and fell off the wire, the hawk comes and eats it, and all the rest of the day Townes is telling all his buddies how I'd done it. Townes was so proud! Instead of me being this nuisance, I had earned my way into the circle."
That was when Townes gave his son the choice. "He said, 'Hey, man, we'll go into town and hit a pawn shop. You can get a guitar or a BB gun, whichever one you want.' So it took me awhile to decide. And finally I was like, 'Well, how about a BB gun? You've already got plenty of guitars around here.' The real answer was, after seeing the lifestyle of a guitar player, I was like, 'No thanks.' Where the BB gun would earn me that certain respect, the guitar would only make me as miserable as he looked."
Later that day, J.T.'s brief bask in the glow of his father's approval would end. Especially with younger folk, Townes was very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. "So I took the BB gun, and a little later we were at some folkie gathering place near downtown Nashville," J.T. says. "And I heard this bird singing, and I was still trying to ride out the good impression I had made on him earlier, so I go, 'What kind of bird was that?' And he goes, 'That's a mourning dove, you little idiot! Don't you know you shot its fuckin' soul mate?' He was all saliva and veins, off the deep end. I sat under the back steps at that place crying until he came out. It was before cell phones, so I didn't know how to call my mom. I had a bought ticket that was good for two weeks, and here I am on the second day."
J.T.'s best friend on that trip proved to be the dog Geraldine. He always knew what to expect from her. "I would leave the house before they would get up and go play with Geraldine in the hills out there. It was snowy. I would build these little snowmen out there and she would just pounce on them, and when they were all demolished she would still be looking around all frisky, seeing where it had gone. Just a total delight."
Then he would hear the screen door slam and see his father walk out the door with another bottle of vodka and more questions that had no answers.
It's not easy being the son of a legend, especially not one as troubled as Townes was. "As a father, he had a lot of unforgivable shortcomings that can't be excused by his music," J.T. says. "And I don't care. I'm not gonna make any excuses for him. It doesn't do me any good, because then I've gotta shoulder the burden of all my indecision and things that I deal with. So I give him full credit where he deserves it, and I also give him full credit in a negative way, too."
And he does sympathize with his father. He remembers waking up many a morning on that visit to find his father sitting on the edge of his bed, rocking back and forth, pulling at his hair, crying and saying, "Fucking bitch!" aloud to nobody in particular. He wasn't talking about anybody either. That was just what he went through when he woke up every morning--the way he viewed the world. It was the "Nothing" he sang about on an early album, "The Hole" he croaked about on his last one.
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J.T. believes his father could have had a measure of contentment had he not given his life so completely to his art. Townes was something of a 19th-century mountain man born a century too late. Before his songwriting career took off, he loved to pack up a horse and ride off alone into the Colorado Rockies for weeks at a time.
"I think he had a real ambition to escape society," J.T. told interviewer Richard Skanse last year. "I really think that he would have loved to have lived unknown out on a ranch and had a happy family and all that sort of stuff up in the mountains somewhere." Nevertheless, he gave it up completely after the gigs started coming. Adios BB gun, hello guitar.
Like his father, J.T. is a nature lover. In fact, he makes his living these days as a fly-fishing guide/instructor on the Llano and Blanco rivers. But he's still agonizing over that decision he thought he made on that awful trip to Nashville decades ago. His first public performance was at the Austin City Limits tribute to his father in 1997. Since then, he's recorded a track for the tribute album Poet and started playing "choice" gigs, only the ones he thinks will be fun. He plays guitar four hours a day (even during our interview) and says he's written a bunch of songs and thrown away almost all of them.
"A music career is in the front of my mind as much as if I were already a professional, I'm sure," he says. "I just don't know if I want to make all those sacrifices to be out there doing it. There's so much stuff I like to do. It seems like once you start rolling, you don't stop. I think I'll give happiness a shot before I go out and try it."