“Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt” gives us a glimpse of the renowned musician’s life and 30-year musical career. Margaret Brown’s documentary combines interviews with friends and family with never-before-seen footage of performances and Van Zandt’s everyday life. It also includes 25 songs that Townes Van Zandt wrote and sang, with appearances by many famous musicians, including Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.
I spoke with Brown about her documentary via telephone the day after her film screened in Austin, Tex., at the Alamo Drafthouse Southern Lamar Theater on Dec. 8.
Jennifer Nemo: Growing up, did you hear any Townes Van Zandt music in your house?
Margaret Brown: I grew up in a household with a lot of music. My dad wrote the theme song for the 1978 film “Every Which Way But Loose” starring Clint Eastwood, and he wrote a lot of songs for other Clint Eastwood movies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There was music going on all the time. We had a studio in our house in Alabama, and all kinds of vinyl records lying around. But I didn’t really think what my dad listened to was all that cool. I didn’t really understand how great that
When I moved to New York for graduate school, I had a roommate who was a band manager for indie types who had a very extensive record collection [and] introduced me to Townes Van Zandt’s music. We were kind of playing competitive record playing, like, who could play the coolest song, and my roommate played the Townes song “Waiting Around to Die.” And, it just blew me away. It got me.
JN: There’s a shot in the film with one of those encased mechanical claws that grabs toys. And then a few shots later, there’s a stuffed animal on a dashboard. What was the significance of that?
MB: It’s funny you should mention that, because Lee [Daniel, cinematographer] did not want to shoot that. [laughs] He thought it was ugly. And I was like, “You have to shoot it, Lee” because it was a symbol of the road and kind of futility. And Lee wouldn’t shoot it. So I had to set up the camera and tell him to just push the button. [laughs]
JN: What really impressed me about the film was the interview footage of the people who knew Van Zandt personally. I didn’t hear Townes Van Zandt’s music growing up in my own household, so it was helpful for me to hear anecdotes from the people who knew him: Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, to name
just a few.
MB: We actually interviewed a lot of famous people who didn’t end up making [it into] the film. We wanted it just to be about the people who knew Townes the best, talking about him. Like Willie Nelson who performs Townes’ song “Pancho and Lefty.” He knew Van Zandt and is friends with his son J. T. who is also prominent in the film. And the only person in the film who doesn’t fit that [criteria] is Kris Kristoferson. But he really got what Townes was about. And so I thought it was important to include him.
JN: It seems unfortunate that Van Zandt as a songwriter didn’t achieve as much commercial success on his own during his 30-year career as the famous country and folk musicians who sang his songs.
MB: You know, Townes definitely had an audience, especially towards the end of his life. He lived on the road, played all the time and made a good living doing that. But what’s so great about documentaries is that they introduce you to something that you don’t know about. I think the people who knew about Townes were a cross between New York hipsters, old hippies and beatniks. And folks from different communities around the United States and Europe.
JN: What about Van Zandt’s song “Pancho and Lefty”? You feature that in your documentary as well, with interview footage of musicians like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, whose recording of it brought the song public fame. Is that because it was one of his most prominent songs?
MB: I think that song is like, this riddle. A lot of times in Q&As people ask me to explain that song. It’s kind of like a poem. You just can’t explain it. There’s lots of ways to interpret it.
JN: I know in the film, Willie Nelson says he felt like the song was written about him—that he could really
MB: And Emmylou Harris said that she felt like the song was hers, and Kris Kristoferson talks about it that way, too. I do think it’s a song that resonates with a lot of people because it’s so open. I think because you can’t pin it down, people are drawn to it.
JN: There’s recorded phone conversations and interviews with Van Zandt that we hear throughout your film. Who recorded those conversations?
MB: [The voice-over audio] is from a journalist named Bill Hedgepath. I read this article he wrote about Townes while I was doing research for the film. [H]e gave me these tapes that were [recorded] over a five-year period. Some of them were phone conversations and some of them were from interviews. He was going to write a biography of Townes, or a long article, and that was his research that he let me use.
JN: In your documentary, there’s footage of Van Zandt singing “Waiting Around to Die” in his kitchen. His next door neighbor—an old man—is brought to tears by the song. It’s a touching scene that really demonstrates the power of Van Zandt’s songwriting skills.
MB: That is outtake footage from [James] Szalapski’s documentary [“Heartworn Highways”] that was released in 1976. Szalapski’s film was shot with a hand-held camera. We’re [literally] given a tour of Townes Van Zandt’s back yard. It’s mostly about Nashville, outside the commercial mainstream of country music. It’s a cool film.
JN: Do you think that your film helps to reveal the mystery behind who Townes was—why he was so self-destructive despite his enormous talent as a songwriter?
MB: There’s never ever one cause as to why someone does something. I think the film helps paint a picture of all those contributing factors. And people watching it should make up their own mind. I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I do feel like I have a lot of clues that I can show in the film that hopefully paint a portrait of who Townes was as a person. It’s hard to answer that question for me.
JN: Despite the inner demons Van Zandt struggled with throughout his life and career, his prolific songwriting is why so many people admired and respected him. The stories his lyrics tell are so easy to connect with and relate to. The 25 songs featured in your documentary were more than enough to convert me. Do you think that people who see this film will be converted to his music?
MB: I definitely wanted to turn people on to his music the way I was. And I have talked to a lot of people who had the same experience of, “How did I miss that?” That kind of feeling. The music just speaks for itself. ||
“Be Here to Love Me” will screen at the Bell Auditorium from Fri., Dec. 16 to Thu., Dec. 22. 10 Church St. SE, Mpls. 612.331.3134. mnFilmArts.org. For more info on the film, visit TownesTheMovie.com.
ALSO: Due to popular demand, “Touch the Sound” has been held over for a third week of shows. It screens Fri., Dec. 16 at 5:15 p.m., Sat., Dec. 17 at 2:15 p.m. and Sun., Dec. 18 at 1:15 and 3:15 p.m.