Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Ft. Worth Blues – Steve Earle

Written and performed by Steve Earle. You can find a great live version from an Austin City Limits tribute show to Townes Van Zandt here. And a live version from the Bluebird Café with some nifty slide guitar work here. You can find the lyrics here. You can buy the original album version from iTunes here and a live version here done as a medley with Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.”

Steve Earle headed out with guitar slung on his shoulder, a head full of ideas, a mug full of attitude, a longing heart and appetites big as Texas. Fates and circumstance led him to Townes Van Zandt who became mentor, friend and shaman feeding those appetites with everything from how to pick a guitar, turn a lyric and, so the story goes, make sure he used clean needles when shooting heroin. When Towns Van Zandt passed away on New Year’s Day 1997, Earle kept following, finding his friend wherever he turned until he finally sat down in Galway, Ireland two months later and wrote Fort Worth Blues as a tribute to his departed friend.

Why Fort Worth? Van Zandt came from Fort Worth, born into a well-known Texas family and in a life of wondering, that was the closest thing he had to a home. The song opens hovering over Fort Worth on the night that Van Zandt died, the City swathed in neon lights:

But they’d shut down all the honky-tonks tonight
And say a prayer or two
If they only knew

The sad irony comes from knowing that the honky-tonks did not close, not because they had not heard the word of the songwriter’s death, but because they did not appreciate the songwriter. Think of Auden’s memorial for Yeats when life went on not noticing the death of the poet or the New Testament lines, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” They loved Van Zandt in Europe, but his hometown was another matter.

Van Zandt left Fort Worth, seeking a place where life made sense. Earle puts his friend’s travels in some perspective:

You used to say the highway was your home
But we both know that ain’t true
It’s just the only place a man can go
When he don’t know where he’s travelin’ to

No other place offered the home Van Zandt sought:

But Colorado’s always clean and healin’
And Tennessee in Spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Ft. Worth Blues

Here the song morphs, because it is not only Van Zandt who sought some peace, but Earle himself, so he sings not only of Van Zandt, but also his own journey. In fact, Earle wrote this song while traveling and touring in the months after his friends death. The song turns back on Earle when he sings:

Somewhere up beyond the great divide
Where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
Just hold on tight
That’s all you gotta do

Is that advice or a wish? Earle speaks at least as much to himself as he does his friend. Earle had been travelling after Van Zandt’s death, and one can imagine that he was struggling with his grief and to make sense of Van Zandt’s life. He came into Galway and stopped for a break. There’s a pub and performing space, the Roisin Dubh, where he would have found a picture of Towns Van Zandt hanging over the bar with an inscription “Townes Van Zandt Texan Singer Songwriter and Gentleman.” Maybe that’s why he writes:

There’s a full moon over Galway Bay tonight
Silver light over green and blue
And every place I travel through, I find
Some kinda sign that you’ve been through

More than a sign in the bar, more then footprints, it’s the echoes of his friend and the words he wrote, a sense that Van Zandt’s spirit has infused the world that Earle inhabits. The song ends with thoughts of foreign cities and the shared journey of the two men. (Think of Auden writing on the passing of Yeats: “The words of a dead man /

Are modified in the guts of the living.”) Earle will go on singing his friend’s song which has become his song:

But Amsterdam was always good for grieving
And London never fails to leave me blue
Paris never was my kinda town
So I walked around with the Ft. Worth Blues

Earle’s spent many years travelling with Van Zandt. In fact, he tells the story of an early tour with a last show in Colorado and Van Zandt was too drunk to go on stage. Figuring no one would know the difference, the young Steve Earle went on as Towns Van Zandt, played all of Van Zandt’s songs, grabbed the money and they high-tailed it back to Texas. In a bit a bravado, Earle once declared Van Zandt, “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” No word if he ever made it up on that table.

Writing a tribute song was not enough homage for Steve Earle to pay to Towns Van Zandt. He also named his son, Justin Towns Earle, after his friend and in 2009, recorded an album of Van Zandt songs entitled, Townes. That album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  You can learn more about Steve Earle at his website and learn more about Towns Van Zandt at this website run by his ex-wife and this website run by fans.


One Response to “Ft. Worth Blues – Steve Earle”

  1. […] Ft. Worth Blues – Steve Earle « Nightly Song […]

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