A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt by Robert Earl Hardy: A Review

A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt

by Robert Earl Hardy

A Review by Rickey E. Pittman

My recent interest in the life and music of Townes Van Zandt began with a recording on one of my Oxford Magazine music CD’s.  The song was “Nothin’” and it was sung by Townes himself. A haunting, almost terrifying song, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I memorized it and now it is part of my own Americana music show.  This song was followed by hearing an interview of Steve Earl on the radio, discussing his new CD, Townes on which he performs his favorite songs of the late Texas songwriter.

After the immersion of music, I decided to learn about Van Zandt’s life, so I ordered two Townes Van Zandt biographies: To Live’s to Fly by John Kruth, which I’ll review in a future post, and A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt, written by Robert Earl Hardy and published by University of North Texas Press. I just finished reading Hardy’s book so I wanted to write a short review.

I’ve always loved to read biographies, and I found Hardy’s book to be a page turner, one that kept my interest throughout the read. I learned that many of the songs I had loved through the years and incorporated them into my show had actually been written by Townes Van Zandt—”Tecumseh Valley,” “Snowing on Raton,” and many others. In A Deeper Blue, the anecdotes and conversations are carefully chosen and powerfully and sometimes sadly, illuminate the life of this Texas troubadour. It was interesting and sometimes surprising to read of the many musicians I’ve known of and respected who were woven into Van Zandt’s milieu—Guy Clark, Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earl, Jerry Jeff Walker, and so many others. Hardy was thorough and careful in his research, and to his credit, though the author was honest, direct, and revealing, he never came close to voyeurism or paparazzi cruelty in his evaluations or revelations.  The chronology of Townes’ life was woven carefully with photos and the threads of songs (with origin and anecdotes), lyrics, and performances. When I finished the read, I felt I had looked inside the mind and heart and music of Townes Van Zandt. Townes was, in Hardy’s words, “the embodiment of the troubled troubadour” (2).

The book’s inside jacket provides a succinct summary of the book’s contents: “A Deeper Blue traces VanZandt’s background as the scion of a prominent Texas family; his troubled early years and his transformation from promising pre-law student to wandering folk singer; his life on the road and the demons that pursued and were pursued by him; the women who loved and inspired him; and the brilliance and enduring beauty of his songs, which are explored in depth.”

This past Saturday night, after the Scots-Irish band I’m in (Angus Dubghall) finished our performance at Enoch’s Pub in Monroe, I talked with the pub’s owner Doyle Jeeter, who had some good stories of his own to share of Townes Van Zandt.

I purchased this biography to learn about a great musician, and Hardy came through. Overall, I would have to highly recommend this biography.

“Did Spring Come Early to Columbia?” A New Song by Rickey Pittman

I really am working hard on my songwriting. Here is song #7 for my CD I want to have made this summer. I’ll be “field testing” these songs on some audiences soon. I’m thinking of adding a couple of traditional songs that I’ve got my own arrangements for to the CD as well. We’ll see about that. I started to make the song be about a Confederate soldier who had a sweetheart in Columbia who had heard about Sherman burning the city, but I couldn’t make the lyrics work, so I kept the chorus and made it a song about a lost love.

“Did Spring Come Early to Columbia?”
Song lyrics by Rickey Pittman

Did spring come early to Columbia,
Did the dogwoods remind you of our love,
Was the fragrance of magnolias in the air?
Are the birds singing now like they used to,
When our love was strong and I had you,
Did Spring come early to Columbia this year?

We fell in love at first sight,
Didn’t care if it was wrong or right,
But didn’t know how hard a heart could break,
I tried so hard to keep your love,
But when it came to push and shove,
I guess you had to let me go.


We broke the rules and rolled the dice
Won with sevens, hit snake eyes twice,
I played for keeps in a game I couldn’t win,
So crazy in love that I didn’t care,
I called the bluff on the devil’s dare,
You dealt the cards and I did the sin.


They say once love is gone, the demons dance along,
They fill your heart and they teach you their songs,
And their sadness will fill your voice and eyes,
I guess you’ve got your demons too,
Hidden lies, brutal truths,
So let me ask you one more time.


The air is cold, it’s still winter here,
I haven’t seen you in two long years,
But I still think of you every night,
Goodbye was tough, but living’s worse,
I don’t know if I can stay the course,
I need spring again, and you with me tonight.

A Song for Johnny . . . A true story

I wrote this song in memory and in honor of Johnny. I never knew his last name. He was Hispanic, and he was hired by the Pittman family to take care of my grandfather in his last months, when we knew he was dying. A hospice worker of a sort, I guess, who lived with them. Their house was just outside Rochester, Texas, in a part of the country known as the Texas Badlands. The water there tasted like sulfur. I liked Johnny and got to know him well. I still remember vividly his telling me how his mother made tortillas. My cousin Sammy didn’t like him and was very vocal about it. In West Texas a prejudice exists among some that is directed against Hispanics. It is a prejudice that is equal to the prejudice you sometimes see directed against blacks in the South. One night my mother called me and told me about Johnny’s suicide. Grandmother had told her what she knew, and she had passed that information on to me. He killed himself with a shotgun outside at my grandparents’ storm cellar. He had left a suicide note. The event traumatized my grandmother, but of course my grandfather barely understood. My grandfather was so inward and withdrawn at that point, that I don’t know that he even missed Johnny, but I did. The grief we all felt was too deep to be forgotten, so I wrote this song.

A Song I Still Hear

Verse 1
Johnny was born in Texas,
But his folks came from Mexico,
They settled close to Haskell,
And swore they’d never go.
They drank the Badland water,
And worked a Badland farm,
They’d gather at their table,
And sing this arm in arm.

We’ll always have each other,
We’ll never say goodbye
We’ll always be a family,
And I’ll never make you cry.

Verse 2:
Johnny worked the oilfields
And was the toughest boy in town.
He spent time in the Army,
Then tried to settle down,
One night he met Maria,
She became his everything,
She promised that they’d marry,
And that every night they’d sing.


Verse 3:
But things seldom work out
The way we want them too.
Maria moved to Dallas,
And Maria was untrue,
She said she loved another,
And could not be his wife.
Johnny’s demons found him,
And that night he took his life.


Verse 4:
On moonlight nights in Texas
Between coyote songs
I think of how we miss him,
His death just seems so wrong,
I think about the friend he was,
And the friend I could have been,
When I visit with his family,
We sing this song for him.


Forgotten Lullaby: A new song/poem

This is the second anniversary of my brother’s death. This poem, that I hope to turn into a song, came to me, so I scribbled it down. With my friend Tom McCandlish’s help, I’m going to make a CD of original songs this summer. I’ve got six good songs already, so I need a few more. Maybe this will be one. You never know if you’re a poet or songwriter. You just have to listen to your muse when she speaks/whispers. I want to make this CD, not because I have hopes of being a superstar singer, but in hopes that a really great singer will want to sing my songs. Wish me luck on that. Anyway, let me know what you think of this poem.
Forgotten Lullaby

(Written in memory of Jimmy Dale Pittman (April 21, 1954-June 30, 2007) and my granddad Fogle in Ivanhoe, TX)

Abandoned now after all these years,
The fence long torn down,
A little house dies alone
Without a whisper or a frown.

It barely stands in Ivanhoe,
A little one road town,
Named after a book no one reads,
I can almost hear a sound

My memories shift like forking roads
To my granddad’s home,
And how like himself, abandoned now,
To crumble and die alone.

Two barefoot boys once played in that yard
Now overgrown with weeds,
They heard bobwhites and owls and whippoorwills,
And watched the fireflies in the trees.

It doesn’t seem like 50 years,
But, yes, it’s been that long,
Since I played with my brother there,
Now the house and him are gone.

We’d lie awake on hot summer nights,
In an antique, now-sold bed,
The oscillating fan our lullaby,
Goodnight, goodbye, it said.

An Interview with Laura Elisabeth Ulrich, an Extroadinary Vocalist

Laura Elisabeth Ulrich is one of the brightest and most talented women I’ve ever encountered. We first met in my English class at ULM, and I was impressed with her writing, and later after hearing her sing, with her voice. She is passionate, loyal to her friends and family, and an achiever by nature. She is the paid soloist for the First United Methodist Church in our area, teaches voice and theatre, composes music, designs websites, has been the hired soloist for funerals, weddings and other social events, has been the paid soloist for several sports events and conventions, including the Republican National Convention. Laura graciously consented to this interview for my blog.

1. QUESTION: Give me a grief summary of your musical life.
ANSWER: I began scat singing “Lullaby of Birdland” before I could speak… I grew up singing jazz and from there I went on to do musical theatre until I got into college. Once in college, I received my first vocal lessons and switched over to Opera. My professor’s teaching belief was if I could learn the basics of Opera and do well in that, then I could do anything. I’d say she was right.
2. QUESTION: Laura, when and how did your love for music develop?
ANSWER: Honestly, I had no die-hard love for music growing up. I liked jazz, rock, heavy metal, and soundtracks. Actually, I typically despise listening to others sing. I’m FAR too critical. I hate listening to myself sing. What I fell in love with was the interpretation of music: the thousands of different ways that you can get across an idea, emotion, or belief through music. It can be instrumental, vocal, or even silence. Victor Hugo states it well, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” Whether I’m listening to music or writing it, that is the point in which I search for.
3. QUESTION: What is your favorite genre (do they use that word in music world?) of music? Any particular favorite performers and songs?
Ooooh… genre… mmm… Rock. I have a severe love for Pink Floyd. I also like instrumental music – anything by Hans Zimmer or Jeremy Soule is incredible. Favorite songs? “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, “Fearless” and “Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd, and a remake of “All Along the Watchtower” by Bear McCreary.
4. QUESTION: You’ve traveled a good bit with your music. Tell my readers about some of your travels.
ANSWER: When I was younger, I sang with Masterworks Children’s Choir. We traveled to New York and D.C. After that, I didn’t travel with music until I got into college. In 2006, I performed in Austria for the 250th Anniversary of Mozart’s death, and went on to perform in Italy in 2007 in “The Marriage of Figaro.” I went over as an understudy and took the role of Cherubino over from the Italian woman they had originally cast. This past summer, I sang at the Republican National Convention several several times (with my first performance being on National television after not sleeping for three days and JUST arriving from the airport). During the summers, I travel across the state teaching music and acting with CA Studios (such as teaching kids to sing a rendition “Row, row, row your boat” in three part harmony with the Beatles’ “Come Together” as accompaniment), and now I am performing in Bastrop, La at the Rose Theatre as Lucy in their production of “Jekyll and Hyde.”
5. QUESTION: Do you play any instruments?
ANSWER: Heh… I can barely read music. I grew up learning things entirely by ear. If I can hear something once or twice, then I can perform it. I didn’t even attempt to read music until college, and… it still kicks my butt. Thus, I never tried to pick up an instrument. I can play piano enough to barely pass a piano proficiency exam (because I was required to in my degree lol!). However, I -did- just pick up a bass over Christmas and can now play through all of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album… I’m trying!!
6. QUESTION: What are your future musical plans?
ANSWER: Future? I have no idea. I’ve decided that I enjoy music far more as a hobby than as a profession. I enjoy theatre. I enjoy opera. I enjoy writing instrumental music. I’d love to one day have my stuff performed by Monroe Symphony… maybe it’ll happen. Either way, I’m doing what I’ve always done – I take the opportunities as they come. If something happens, AWESOME! If not, I’ll try again later. My foremost goal is to discover my niche in the music world. I can sing opera. I can sing musical theatre. I can sing jazz. I can sing rock. I can write the music. I can tear it apart and understand it. I really have a knack for hearing and writing harmony that isn’t typically there. But I can’t figure out what I prefer or which I enjoy the most. So my quest for now is to figure out exactly where and how my passion for music lies.

7. QUESTION: What advice would you give young singers?

ANSWER: Never let -anyone- tell you that you can’t do something. Can’t never could. You only fail when you have failed to try. I can’t count the hundreds of times that people have told me that I couldn’t do something and I’ve (luckily) been able to proven them wrong. Even now, with “Jekyll and Hyde” – My entire college career, I was told that you can’t perform both opera and musical theatre (that’s why I switched to opera rather than remaining with musical theatre). Yet in this show, I’m singing all the operatic first soprano chorus lines that lie in the stratosphere of high C’s, yet my actual character is an alto belter role. I was told I’d never make it into the Rome Opera Festival, that I’d never win competitions because I was a freshman, that I’d never win another competition because I won the previous year, that I’d never get the leading role in three consecutive shows in one season, etc. If someone tells you that you can’t do something, take that as an opportunity to prove them wrong! Never ever ever give up. It takes hard work. It takes blood, sweat, and tears. But in the end, it’s a mental game. If you believe to your core that you can do something, then nothing will stop you from doing your absolute best. Again, you only fail when you have failed to try.

Here is a list of Laura’s performances:

Performance Credits

Title of Production Role Played Backstage Work Year Venue
Hilarious History Betsy Ross 1995 Oxford University School
Pinnochio The Blue Fairy 1996 Young Troupe
Annie Warbucks Annie 1996 Strauss Theatre Center
Boogie on the Bayou Woodpecker 1996 Young Troupe
Southern Angst Narrator 1997 Young Troupe
Ramona Quimby: Age 8 Susan 1997 Young Troupe
Junkyard Dogs Skeeter 1997 Young Troupe
Return to the Forbidden Planet Chorus 1998 Young Troupe
The Hobbit Set Design 1998 Young Troupe
Sound of Music Louisa 1998 Strauss Theatre Center
I Sincerely Doubt That This Old House is Haunted Spotlight 1998 Strauss Theatre Center
Wait Until Dark Gloria 1999 Strauss Theatre Center
High Society Chorus 2000 Strauss Theatre Center
Sleeping Beauty Princess Narcissus 2000 Young Troupe
Wizard of Oz Ozian 2000 Young Troupe
Julius Caesar Various Costuming 2000 Neville High School
Cottonland Christmas Unwrapped Various 2000 Strauss Theatre Center
Canterbury Tales 2001 Neville High School
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Assistant Director/Music 2002 Young Troupe
Schoolhouse Rock Dori 2003 Young Troupe
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe The White Witch 2003 Young Troupe
Romeo and Juliet Juliet Music 2003 Young Troupe
Deathtrap Backstage Crew 2003 Strauss Theatre Center
Cottonland Christmas Unwrapped Various 2004 Strauss Theatre Center
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Linda Lou 2004 Strauss Theatre Center
Les Miserables (2x) Fantine 2004 Young Troupe
Annie Grace Costuming 2004 Strauss Theatre Center
Divorce Southern Style Elizabeth Costuming 2005 Strauss Theatre Center
Route 66 Backstage Crew 2005 Strauss Theatre Center
Opera Workshop Various 2006 Louisiana Tech University
The Marriage of Figaro Cherubino 2007 Rome Opera Festival
The Comedy of Errors Antipholus of Syracuse 2008 Dixie Theatre Center
Jubee Revue Various Assistant Director/Music 2008 Rayville Arts Center
Jekyll and Hyde Lucy 2009 Rose Theatre

In addition to these, there are numerous summer workshops where Laura taught, performed, and assistant directed.

Here are some photos of the beautiful singer. The last photo is of her in Figaro:



Summer Season for Storytellers

I love being a storyteller. I almost weep each time I present my programs to children and I see how much they enjoy it.  This summer, I’m spending my time developing  college classes for my online work and improving my school programs. There is so much to do, and so little time.  The summer is known as the “lean season” for storytellers, and I hope I can prepare for a good fall.

Thoughts on the Saint Patrick’s Battalion (San Patricios)

I just ordered a DVD about the Saint Patrick’s Battalion who fought for Mexico during the Mexican War. I hope to show it at the Celtic Society of Northeast Louisiana and the Scottish Society here someday. The site I got it from is here: A bit of trivia: Did you know that 1,500,00 Mexican citizens claim Irish ancestry? That fact is amazing to me. However, I’ve learned that there are schools and streets in Mexico named in honor John Riley and the other Irishmen. There’s a lot more to this story than I realized. I tried to attach the study guide offered with the video, but I think that failed. If you’d like a copy of it, leave a comment with your email or just email me and I’ll send you one.

A Place So Far from Texas: Thoughts on Point Lookout Prison


I understand a virus is ravaging Facebook.  I am on Facebook, but even though I use a MAC, which is generally virus resistant,  I think I’ll lay off a while until the virus is handled or I learn what to watch out for. I’ll soon have a new book out that I’ve edited. It’s called, Biography of a Sea Captain’s Life: Written by Himself. It’s the memoirs of W.C. Flanders that I edited for the Seegers family. I’m still intending to burn up the roads this next school year presenting stories and songs. I’m enjoying my online teaching job(s) tremendously. In July, I’ll be in Durant, OK for the Shakespeare Festival there and in Hot Springs Arkansas the last week of July for the Sons of Confederate Veterans National Convention.

A Place So Far from Texas

This blog entry is an article I wrote for TGIF Weekend Bandit, a small paper in North Texas. I thought I’d include it on my blog. See also August 14, 2006 for the lyrics to my song about Point Lookout, “Cry, Little Artillery Man.”

If you go to http://www.plpow.com/ you will find information on Point Lookout, a Prison Camp for Confederates from 1863 to 1865 in the state of Maryland during the War for Southern Independence. Point Lookout was a genocidal, ethnic cleansing, concentration camp filled with federal atrocities that housed over 52,000 Southerners, with a death count of over 14,000.  The site is devoted to many of the stories of the War Between the States that are left out of the history books.  “The tale of the camp,” writes Edwin Warfield Beitzell in his book, Point Lookout, Prison Camp for Confederates, “is a horrid story to tell. It is a story of cruel decisions in high places, a story of diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and typhus, of burning sands and freezing cold in rotten tents. It is a story of senseless shootings by guards. It is a story of the despair and death . . .”  Yes, and many Texas men were sent there and died there.  As we appreciate our beautiful state, we should understand the pain that these men felt, suffering and dying in that place so far from Texas.

I hope you’ll check out the site and learn a little bit about this camp.  Here is a photo of the camp and a photo of the officers who ran the camp, Brig. General James Barnes and Staff. The photos are from a site devoted to Southern Maryland: http://photos.somd.com/showgallery.php/cat/591

Here are two quotes on the site’s (Point Lookout) first page that will give us a little to think about.

Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity … Gen. Robert E. Lee

Nothing fills me with deeper sadness than to see a southerner apologize for the defense we made for our heritage… President Jefferson Davis.

Point Lookout Staff

Point Lookout Staff

Return from Greenville, Texas Public Library

Last night, I presented a program of stories and music to the Friends of the Library in Greenville, Texas. Today, I presented my program to a large room of children and parents. The audience was warm and receptive, both to my stories and the music. This was my second program at this library, and I’ll have more photos of my visit to post very soon.  Sylvia, the librarian, is such a committed lady. She works long hours and takes great delight in bringing good programs to the children. In this photo is another dedicated worker–LeJeana, the Children’s Librarian.

LeJeana, the Childrens Librarian at the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library in Greenville, Texas

LeJeana, the Children's Librarian at the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library in Greenville, Texas

A Poem for the Clan Cumming and the Scottish Society of the Louisiana Hielands

The summer is starting to fill up and already I’m making plans for a busy fall, scheduling schools and festivals as musician/singer and storyteller. Today, I have Scottish matters on my mind. At noon today, at the Picadilly at Mall St. Vincent in Shreveport, I’ll be speaking and signing books for the Scottish Society of the Louisiana Hielands. That society has some great people in it. You can find their excellent website and all sorts of Scottish information here: If you live in Northeast Louisiana or East Texas, you should visit them sometime.

I also did some more reading on the Clan Cumming and wrote them another poem. Here it is:

The Murder of John the Red Comyn at Greyfriar’s Church

Feb. 10,  1306

John the Red and Robert the Bruce
Met on a cold day in Dumfries
The victory at Roslyn forgotten,
Because of pride and jealousy.

Bruce forged a plan of murder,
Of betrayal fed by greed,
With his brothers he conspired,
To commit the bloody deed.

An argument broke out,
It doesn’t matter why,
The Red’s blood darkened the soil,
As his soul rose to the sky.

Comyn land was divided
Among Bruce’s chosen few,
The clan was forced to flee,
To a land foreign, strange, and new.

A leader died at the church that day,
And never would return,
The victors write the history,
As the Cumming clan would learn.