You'd imagine Hank Williams Sr. would enjoy Townes Van Zandt's company. Townes was a big fan.
Though Van Zandt and Williams weren't musically similar, and though Van Zandt was 9 when Williams died at age 30, they remain kindred emotional spirits with a keen understanding of the human heart and a penchant for hard living. Lonesome romantics with the gift of piercing honesty, Van Zandt and Williams battled the needle while building enduring legacies, even if one has proven more commercially viable. The case could be made that Williams' success hastened his death, while Van Zandt's critical respect and commercial anonymity drove him to hang on.
That difference makes it even more fitting to jointly celebrate their passing—Jan. 1, 1953 and 1997, respectively. One died in the back of a limo, and the other died after being a late-career pizza delivery guy (as a friend from Austin once related). While Williams' reputation was established long before he died (he had 11 No. 1 hits), Van Zandt's fame has been largely buoyed by country music connoisseurs. Van Zandt died only 14 years ago, and perhaps not enough time has elapsed for the genuflection to begin in earnest, despite the release of an excellent, romantic biopic in 2006, Be Here to Love Me.
Critics appreciate him, and songwriters—particularly Texas musicians—draw inspiration from the tone and lyrical spirit of Van Zandt's windblown down-and-outers. Like Nick Drake's resurgence in the '90s (he died in 1974), the time is right for Van Zandt's posthumous revival.
The biggest obstacle might be that much of his artistry lies in his words. They fit the tender melodies, but the power of the sentiments (from the poker game between Mudd and Gold to the down-and-out couple beneath the bridge) and their expression elevate these songs to greatness. Van Zandt remains alongside Guy Clark as a gold mine for country artists seeking to unearth gems their audience has never heard.
Williams' influence, on the other hand, is difficult to overstate. By the time he was 25, Williams was a star; less than five years later, he was dead. He's credited as the father of contemporary country music, name-checked right up there with God, Country and NASCAR. His honeyed vocals slide from plea to coo as though the floors are waxed. His no-nonsense songwriting served as the perfect vehicle for his voice. His ideas were direct poetry that didn't require much interpretation.
Two strains of country grew directly out of Williams' music. There's the tears-in-your-beer ballads, which possess a sad, penetrating beauty. But Williams also had a more rambunctious side. Hits like "Move It on Over," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" move with the sprightly gait and lighthearted spirit that informed Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Still, you generally don't hear Williams' songs on the radio, in commercials or even covered by other artists—another welcome reason for the Nightlight's tribute to these two musical legends.
The evening features an interesting cast of contributors, a testament to the influence of both writers. There's gruff Americana act Slingshot Cash, whose ragged, shuffling folk-country promises to give both men a good workout. Durham's Jeremy Blair from Effingham favors dreamy pastoral folk-rock seemingly better suited to Van Zandt than Williams. Chapel Hill duo Jokes & Jokes & Jokes has a satirical edge to fit their name and something of a folk-punk style.
The Magnolia Collective headlines. Featuring members of the Pneurotics, Whiskey Smugglers, Gambling the Muse, Red Collar and whomever else they can grab, they've been putting their spin on roots music at the Americana Revue Night every second Thursday at The Station in Carrboro. They're quite capable of giving either artist a rousing memorial at a time when both could use it.