An Irishman's Diary

 

MANY fans of American song do not allow the first day of the year to pass without thinking of two of the world's greatest songwriters who died on that date, 44 years apart, writes Kevin Stevens

Hank Williams is a folk music icon, an unapologetically Southern country singer whose poignant songs and tortured personal life have fused into one of America's most durable musical myths.

On New Year's Day, 1953, Williams was travelling to a gig in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac when, somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Oak Hill, West Virginia, he succumbed to the effects of years of drug and alcohol abuse. He had just recorded his last single, entitled I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. He was 29 years old.

Williams had a profound effect on a generation of singers who never saw him perform. Songs such as Honky Tonkin', Lovesick Bluesand I'm So Lonesome I Could Cryinfluenced Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Ryan Adams, among many others.

Listening to Emmylou Harris's rendering of Lost on the River, or Lucinda Williams's intense, raw version of Cold, Cold Hearthelps us understand why Hank is revered by fans of true country music, as opposed to Nashville's bland mainstream - and why satirist and songwriter Kinky Friedman dubbed Garth Brooks (whose new releases are available only in Wal-Mart) "the anti-Hank".

But Williams's greatest successor was the Texas-born Townes Van Zandt, who also wrote timeless songs of failed love and lost highways and lived the life he sang with the same self-destructive tenacity. Subject to crippling depression, hopelessly addicted to heroin and alcohol, Van Zandt paid the ultimate tribute to his idol by dying of heart failure on New Year's Day 1997, when his ravaged body could not cope with neck and hip injuries suffered in a fall down concrete steps at his home in Smyrna, Tennessee.

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." This oft-quoted comment by Steve Earle is typical of the praise Van Zandt inspires in his admirers - though equally typical was Van Zandt's laconic response: "I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table."

Van Zandt's songs are like Pushkin's poems: they have enormous emotional force but are expressed in language and musical phrasing that are remarkably simple. They draw deeply from a ballad tradition that stretches back hundreds of years and yet capture perfectly the spirit of contemporary rural America. And they confront the largest of themes - loneliness, lost love, the fear of death — in ways that are direct and unpretentious:

Days up and down they come

Like rain on a conga drum

Forget most, remember some

Oh, but don't turn none away.

Everything is not enough

Nothing is too much to bear

Where you've been is good

and gone

All you keep is the getting

there.

Trying to analyse the impact of his songs is fruitless: they fall on your senses like an act of nature and never feel less than ideally weighted and faultlessly constructed:

If three and four was seven

only

Where would that leave one

and two?

If love can be and still be

lonely

Where does that leave me

and you?

Like Williams, Van Zandt has had his songs covered by scores of singers, but no one can interpret them as he could. His cracked voice and wistful tone were perfect for their vivid lines, and a Van Zandt concert was always riveting, even when, as was often the case, he was drunk or stoned.

Van Zandt had a close, almost mystical relationship with Ireland. He loved the countryside, the people and the many connections between Irish and American music. A frequent visitor in the final years of his life, he performed at the Olympia and Whelan's in Dublin, at Róisín Dubh in Galway, and in the Pathe Hotel in Roscrea. Fans who attended those gigs still speak of their intensity and the way Van Zandt's easy, self-deprecating stage presence contrasted with the lightning-like effect of his songs.

In 1994, he had a dream in which a voice said to him: "You're too old, too tired, too road-weary. You need to go to Ireland and make a record." He got up in the middle of the night and phoned Phillip Donnelly, the Irish guitarist and producer who had played on a couple of his albums in the 1970s. Donnelly agreed to produce the record, and a few months later Van Zandt recorded his last studio album, No Deeper Blue, in Limerick's Xeric Studios.

It is a magnificent swansong, full of the foreknowledge of death and bittersweet regret for all he knew he was leaving, including his children, to whom the album is dedicated. It contains ballads, blues and laments, and a tender lullaby to his infant daughter:

There is no deeper blue

In the ocean that lies

As deep as the blue

Of your laughing eyes

No sweeter sound

Than your gentle sigh

No heart was ever so pure.

Saying good-night to Katie Belle, Van Zandt was saying good-bye to life, but the passage from age to innocence, marked by us all every new year, has rarely been so beautifully expressed.