I know that I covered Townes already in relation to Steve Earle, but he is a figure that looms so large over songwriters, his influence bears mentioning again, this time not as much in terms of music, but in terms of dedication to the craft and absence of pretense. So, here goes.
"Townes did it. Townes did it a million times."
Michael Dean Damron looks like a mean cat. He's not - not by a longshot - but he looks that way. I can't vouch for the accuracy of this but Mike looks like one of those guys who played football for two years in high school before realizing that he could just cut out the middle man, get drunk, and still beat the hell out of people without having to don lycra pants or rely on any sort of protective polyurethane testicular guard. Maybe he had a pickup truck with two cassette tapes rattling around on the floor:the first Metallica record and Waylon Jennings Super Hits. Probably even slept (read: passed out) enough nights in the pickup truck to have calculated exactly which angle to sleep at for maximum comfort. I don't know. I'd never have any reason to ask Mike and he'd never have any reason to tell me without my asking. So, as far as I know, that's his story. But maybe it isn't. Doesn't much matter where we he was fifteen years ago. Right now, he's standing beside me in front of the stage at the Kenton Club in Portland, Oregon, trying to put a shit gig in perspective.
"Townes did it all around the country. I seen 'im play to five people, somebody talkin' the entire time, somebody trying to put something on the jukebox, yellin' 'cause it ain't on. If Townes did it, we can do it. Builds character."
He's right. Townes Van Zandt did play a million bad gigs in a million empty bars. And yeah, it probably does build character to try and wrest an audience of three away from the college football game roaring on the television the bartender conveniently forgot to turn off before we hit the stage. I know you win 'em one at a time, and I know there's honor and conviction in standing on that stage and playing your songs, spitting into the wind. I know all that. I also know that, if you're writing songs and recording songs and standing on stage playing those songs, it's because you want people to hear those songs. Ideally, more than three and, ideally, you don't want competition from ESPN while you're doing it.
But Mike's right. If Townes did it, we can do it. Hell, between the two of us, we've got enough character built up to last ten lifetimes. And we'll keep at it, 'til we drop or run out of songs to sing. We'll keep following Townes around the world, chasing his ghost from one bar to another, up the east coast and across the midwest, down from Seattle to San Diego, and all over Texas, too. We're all of us out there, following Townes.
See, there ain't never gonna be another Dylan. He caught lightning; tapped into some thing that courses through each one of us but couldn't nobody else put words around. And there ain't gonna be another Springsteen. I don't have any delusions that, someday, my guitar and I will going to be leading 50,000 people in a collective revival of soul and spirit. Doesn't happen that way anymore. But Townes? There could be another Townes. Now, I wanna speak carefully here so as not to misrepresent myself. I ain't saying there could be another writer write something like "Rex's Blues" or "To Live Is to Fly." Hell no. There might never be another poet like Townes, not as long as the sun keeps burning down on us. But, somebody who travels around, and wins 'em one by one the way you're supposed to, and lives and dies on the songs - on the power and the grace of the songs - there could be another one of them. Hell, there already is.
And I don't mean Steve Earle, because everybody knows Steve Earle and everybody knows he's as good a songwriter as there is alive in the world today. I mean those of us still out there, trying to whisper over ESPN, trying to win 'em one at a time, even when there's only one of 'em to win anyway some nights.
I mean somebody whose PR guy is just somebody telling all his friends, "You gotta hear THIS."
I mean somebody whose booking agent is just a friend with enough free time to make a few phone calls and maybe cover postage.
I mean Joe Pug.
I mean Micah Schnabel.
I mean Tim Barry.
I mean Michael Dean Damron.
And, yeah, I mean me.
It's February 11, 2010 and I'm writing in this in an apartment in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where I've spent the better part of the last year playing my songs for American soldiers and a handful of people who maybe know the words, if not what they mean. Half a world away from home, still chasing Townes.
And I know next year, one of those names I mentioned is gonna be on everyone's tongue. And maybe the others might make enough to pay their bills and breathe a bit, and that ain't so bad. But there will still be a whole chorus of voices out there, trying to rise up above the din of street traffic and college football and pinball; trying to find somebody who's listening. Trying to win 'em one by one.
And some nights there won't be any winning. Some nights, it's gonna be enough to make somebody wonder why they opened their mouth to make a sound at all. But that same somebody will be right back out there the next night, ready to win.
Because a song ain't a song if you don't sing it.
Because if a tree falls in the woods and nobody was there to see it, it's our job to tell 'em it fell.
And because Townes did it.
Because if Townes did it, we can do it, too.