Defining Greatness: A Tribute to Townes

Mar 19, 2014

I recently saw a Facebook post that a friend made referring to Townes Van Zandt as the greatest songwriter to ever live. Since last weeks post dealt with the subjectivity of music and it’s listener, I feel that Townes is a great subject in the attempt to objectively define what “greatness” is. While I assume that most people reading this already know Townes Van Zandt’s music, I would bet that those not familiar with him are at least familiar with “Pancho and Lefty”, popularized by Willie Nelson. For the musician, songwriter, or music enthusiast, though, it seems a shame that there are many people unfamiliar with the rest of his body of work, not only for the songs themselves, but also for his influence on so many other songwriters.

To my generation of songwriters who were unfamiliar with him prior to his death on January 1, 1997, he is a sort of mythical legend. Diagnosed with manic depression in college and treated with shock therapy, as well as suffering a lifelong battle with heroin and alcohol addiction, he embodies the “troubled, but brilliant songwriter”. And there is no denying his brilliance. He had an unparalleled ability to paint a beautiful picture of sorrow. The songs sing as though Townes was constantly finding a happy place in a sad world, and was so caught in that world that he had become unaware of the sadness. You don’t have to search too long in Nashville for a story about someone seeing him perform when he was too drunk or high to remember his lyrics or play his guitar. Whether the stories are told accurately or not, the legend persists, a legend that leads many to wonder what impact his troubles had on his brilliance, and what impact they had on his career.

Still, there often exists a great gap between what is beautiful art and what is useful in our economy. We all have that pop song that we think is void of artistic value, yet it’s creators are given awards and trophies for it’s economic success. This creates a sort of binary distinction between the “artist” songwriter and the “craftsman” songwriter that crafts music used to promote consumerism, wether directly tied to a product, or advertising a lifestyle in which consumption of goods is a necessary and inevitable byproduct. While I do claim a binary distinction exists, there is undoubtedly a grey area, a narrow line that welds the two together that few songwriters have consistently walked. While it is hard to argue that those few are worthy of being considered the “greatest” songwriters, there are still the Townes Van Zandt’s of the world, the ones who create something that is beautiful, but has little value to those who place songs into the public mainstream that convince us to buy a certain type of food, go on a certain vacation, or to join a certain group. There is a loneliness to his songs that leave the listener in a sort of unsettled wonder at the human condition.

The song I have chosen is “Loretta”, a song that was recommended by a commenting reader last week, and a song that has long been one of my favorites. I am interested in what you find to be “great” music, and also the principles by which you judge that greatness. While musical tastes differ so vastly, there seems to exist a common, though undefined, recognition of artistic value, regardless of our limited exposure to so much art.


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