Brian T. Atkinson was an inexperienced freelancer when he hatched the notion of writing a book about Townes Van Zandt's influence as a songwriter. Without a track record, it took the former Denver resident years just to build up enough cred to get the interviews he wanted.
Atkinson spent nearly a decade of doggedly pursuing the veterans who knew his troubled hero, as well as younger-generation singer-songwriters whose work is informed by the late Texas troubadour. A labor of love, I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt was finally published in late November. The Texas A&M University Press tome is filled with anecdotes and testimonials by giants like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Billy Joe Shaver and Lyle Lovett, along with newer acolytes like My Morning Jacket's Jim James, the Avett Brothers' Scott Avett, Kasey Chambers and Hayes Carll.
It was Carll's New Year's Day, 2003, performance at the sixth annual Townes wake in Galveston, Texas, that inspired the project. Coincidentally, it was also Atkinson's first magazine assignment, for No Depression.
"Townes, to me, he's just absolutely singular," Atkinson says, locking his startlingly blue eyes on his interviewer. "There are people like Paul Simon and Guy Clark and Steve Earle and James Taylor who are at that pinnacle. I just know I can't put him with anyone else."
Van Zandt, the writer of such classics as "Pancho & Lefty," "If I Needed You" and "Snowin' on Raton," died on New Year's Day, 1997, from a post-hip-surgery blood clot. But alcoholism and drug addiction had devastated his body long before that. Atkinson, who also wrote for Denver's 5280 and edited the Limon Leader, doesn't delve deeply into Van Zandt's history or psyche, however.
"I didn't think it was my right to get into his brain," he explains. "I was interested in the drinking only as to its relationship to the music. I wanted songwriters to say it, not me."
And many do, describing in tragicomic detail their experiences with a revered wordsmith even Bob Dylan sought out, yet who was notoriously bad at managing life.
Though Atkinson never got to interview Dylan — or Willie Nelson or Steve Earle, two of Van Zandt's biggest cheerleaders — he says that turned out to be beneficial since it allowed him to include more next-generation artists. And to jump when serendipity called, as was the case with Shawn Camp, a hit songwriter and Clark's sideman.
Not only did Camp contribute valuable insights, he also hooked Atkinson up with a previously elusive Cowboy Jack Clement for the book's forward. (Denver artist Sean Tracey contributed the Townes sketch on the back cover.)
Atkinson, who moved to Austin in 2005, still misses Colorado and environs. He says he spent a good deal of his free time in "the Springs" and would also drive down to Santa Fe.
"The most transcendent, perfect thing in this world is driving through Raton Pass, New Mexico, listening to Townes singing 'Snowin' on Raton.' I would slow down to about 20 miles per hour and piss off the truck drivers, just so I could play it at least twice while driving through town," he says.
The truckers may have hated him, but Townes most likely would have appreciated that.