Townes Van Zandt Tribute at Sweetwater Music Hall, by Carolyn McCoy
Townes Van Zandt Tribute (photo: Carolyn McCoy)

Words by Carolyn McCoy

The late, great Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt was often considered “a songwriter’s songwriter.” Van Zandt was part of the “outlaw country music” movement that depicted a more real and dark side of life. Van Zandt’s lyrics spoke of all his demons and hardships, and he created songs that told the hard truth about the human condition: That life is tough and it can roll us into a ditch and leave us to die at any moment.

With Sunday evening's Townes Van Zandt tribute at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, members of Mother Hips, San Geronimo, and Terrapin Family Band honored the heartbreaking lyrical content of Van Zandt. San Geronimo’s Jeremy D’Antonio, whose connection to Van Zandt’s music is strong and vital to his own songwriting style, gathered up an amazing crew of songwriters and musicians to showcase much of Van Zandt’s work. States D’Antonio: “The first time I heard Townes, there was a feeling that came over me from the first note that was so familiar and comforting. At the time I thought that feeling was sadness, but it wasn’t sadness at all. To quote Townes,  “my songs are not sad, they’re hopeless.’ That was a feeling I knew very well.“

The rotation of songwriters covering Van Zandt’s music included Danny Click’s rendition of “Snowin’ On Raton,” Darren Nelson (San Geronimo) sang “Waiting Around To Die,” Greg Loiacano (Mother Hips) covered “Greensboro Woman,” Victoria George sang  “If I needed You,” Ross James (Terrapin Family Band) rocked it on “Colorado Girl,” Kevin Meade (Highway One Band) covered “Flyin’ Shoes.” Danny Montana opened the night with “Talking Thunder Blues,” and the finale was a group effort to slam us with “Poncho and Lefty.” The incredible backing band consisted of mandolin player Ethan Wiley, drummer Rob Hooper (Carolyn Wonderland), and bassist Joe Kyle Jr. (Howell Divine).

San Geronimo’s Darren Nelson says it best: “Townes is genius. His songs tell stories so visual, yet so poetic. He plays with words like a sculptor does clay. He has always been an inspiration to me.”

Keeping traditional music alive that has had such an impact on generations of musicians and songwriters that follow in Zandt’s footsteps is crucial, as it is the backbone of much of the music we know now. Zandt’s music and words have created a legacy that lends a tragic and poetic voice to the dark side of life.