Townes Van Zandt played the Cactus Cafe in Austin, Texas for the last t ime on Saturday, October 13, 1996. He died on January 1, 1997, the annive rsary of the death of Hank Williams, one of his true heroes. During the r adio tribute I did to Townes the next evening the manager of the Cactus, Griff Luneberg, called and said that Townes was booked to play on January 22 & 23 and those dates would be a tribute to him with his fans and frie nds invited to perform.
The list of confirmed guests for the "Houseboat In Heaven" tribute was im pressive, and both nights drew sell out crowds at 10 bucks a head, with t he money to go to college funds for Will and Katie Belle, Townes's two yo ung children. Griff asked me to MC, and I said OK. I slipped in shortly a fter the show started on Wednesday just in time to introduce Barbara K., who did a beautiful rendition of "Snowin' On Ratone."
Among the highlights on the first night were Kimmie Rhodes and her son Gabe doing "If I Needed You," and Kimmie's song that she and Townes had recorded as a duet, "I'm Gonna Fly." Mandy Mercier, Champ Hood and Dan Earhart joined forces for "Tecums eh Valley," "White Freight Liner Blues," and "Fraulein," which Champ had learned from a Townes 45. In one of his last studio sessions Townes and B arb Donovan recorded a duet of "I'll Be Here In The Morning," and Barb wa s there to sing it at the tribute.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore came on at about 10 PM, and the KEYE-TV newscast stuck a camera in the door duri ng his set, which included "No Lonesome Tune," "Tecumseh Valley," and "Wh ite Freight Liner Blues," The latter was the first song on Jimmie's first album, "Fair & Square." A bit later I introduced one of the surprise gue sts, Joe Ely, by saying that he had t he honor of having Townes record one of his songs, "Indian Cowboy." Joe t old about seeing Townes lost in the warehouse district of Lubbock and off ering him a ride out to the edge of town. Townes had a backpack filled wi th copies of his first album. No extra clothes, just records. Townes gave Joe one of the records, and Joe took it over to Jimmie Gilmore's house, where they listened to it over and over. Joe then sang "Waitin' Around To Die," and "Tecumseh Valley." He finished out with "Indian Cowboy," which he said he had to re-learn from Townes's recording, because he had forgo tten that he had written it.
Eric Taylor and Abner Burnette, both veterans of an early Austin songwrit er bar called Spellman's, played. Abner told of Townes and Blaze Foley pl aying pool at Spellman's and hustling people with a trick shot through a roll of duct tape that they would practice constantly. Later, after the s how, Abner flipped quarters with Eric's wife Martha for his Martin guitar 2E He lost and she walked away with his guitar.
On Wednesday I got to the Cactus early enough to open the show and tell t he story about how Townes got his first guitar. When Townes was about nin e years old he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show. His older siste r and some of her girlfriends were in the room, and when Townes saw the e ffect that Elvis had on those girls he decided there was something in the guitar. Townes asked his father for a guitar, and he said heB9d buy him one if he would learn "Fraulein" first song. Townes promised and got his guitar and learned "Fraulein" first. Townes sang "Fraulein" his entire c areer, and in the last couple years of his life had a German girlfriend n amed Claudia. The first song he learned to sing became the last love of h is life. Damon Bramblett sang "Fraulein" to lead off the Thursday tribute 2E
While introducing Derral Gleason, the Cactus Cafe soundman, I quoted Town es, from "To Live Is To Fly," on a topic crucial to a traveling musician, the sound system:
"I'll miss the system here,
The bottom's low
And the treble's clear
Derral sang the song he always requested from Townes, "The Hole."
Troy Campbell and Scrappy Jud Newcomb of Loose Diamonds did "Still Lookin ' For You," and "Two Girls." Troy said he had seen a Bob Dylan concert on e time and Dylan had introduced "Pancho & Lefty" by saying, "This is by t he greatest songwriter in the world." Steve Earle has been quoted as sayi ng "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand o n Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Townes repor tedly responded, "I've met Bob Dylan's bodyguards, and if Steve thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table, he's sadly mistaken."
Troy left the stage and Beaver Nelson joined Jud and sang "Mr. Mudd and M r. Gold," the five card stud classic. After the song Beaver flipped his g uitar over and showed the cards for the last two hands of the game, which he had taped to the back of the guitar. Beaver and Scrappy also did "Sna ke Song" and "Blaze's Blues," which Townes wrote for his late running bud dy Blaze Foley.
Will T. Massey did two of the prettiest Townes songs, "Quicksilver Dreams Of Maria," and "The Catfish Song." Darden Smith was up next, and he told the story of opening for Townes at Anderson Fair in Houston, which he likened to opening for Noah at a boat builders' convention. Darden had built Townes up to his parent s, and they were in the audience. During his set Townes fell off his chai r, and Darden's mother began to have doubts about her son's career choice 2E Darden sang "Loretta."
After intermission Kelly Willis opened the second set with a beautiful version of " Rex's Blues," a song about Rex Bell, who played bass for both Townes and Lightnin' Hopkins. Roxy Gordon told several stories about his adventures with Townes, mostly involving drinking and/or gambling. Roxy and Townes s hared the same birthday, March 7, though Townes was a year older.
Jimmy LaFav e revealed that he was born in Van Zandt county, named for Townes's a ncestors. He sang "Snowin' On Ratone," "Ain't Leavin' Your Love," and "Th e Catfish Song," accompanied by Randy Glines and Ron Welch. Bruce Robison sang "Greensboro Woman," and "Pancho & Lefty." Michael Fracasso was backed up by Jud Newc omb and Beaver Nelson on "Loretta," and "Ain't Leavin' Your Love."
Rich Minus played both nights. He did well on Wednesday, telling an anecd ote about a time when Billy Joe Shaver called Townes up for a couple of g uest songs. Townes created pandemonium by saying that Billy Joe wanted ev erybody to have a drink on the house. On Thursday, Rich told every third word of the story, and stumbled through "No Lonesome Tune," singing the " In the kitchen mama sneezed" verse twice. Then he passed out on the stage 2E After Rich was helped off stage, Mark Ambrose sang the most appropria te Townes Van Zandt song to follow that bit of unease:
"If I had no place to fall,
And I needed to,
Could I count on you,
To lay me down..."
J.T. Van Zandt closed out both nights with memories of his dad and a few songs, including Peter LaFarge's "Ballad Of Ira Hayes," which Townes ofte n sang, and thought he could have written if it hadn't already been writt en. Townes felt that the songs were out there and basically just needed t o be harvested. He certainly harvested some of the best ones, and the rea l star of the tribute was his incredible body of work, which stands as so me of the finest literature of the Twentieth Century.