On the face of it there’s not much connecting Townes Van Zandt and Shawn Colvin. There’s the obvious connection to roots music and a common attachment to where that music came from. There’s also a common thread of pure songwriting; story telling, melodies, heartbreak, but heck, we could say that of so many of our featured artists. On the AC we’re lucky to get so many fine singer songwriters through the door that we expect talent as a given.
Digging a little deeper however there is perhaps a thread that has run through both these artists lives. In the sixties Townes Van Zandt’s parents ‘sent’ him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. It was short, brutal and, crucially not supported by any other therapy or counselling. Whatever their intentions had been, there was no real effective cure from the deep sadness and pain that troubled Townes for the rest of his life. Seeing him as a guy who drank a lot, took various stimulants and failed to form permanent relationships is true but unsatisfactory. His life, it seems to me, was similar to many people we all know who have suffered various forms of mental illness along the road. However much we find that difficult to live alongside, for them, the torment and the torture is a constant thorn in the side; from my own experience I rarely see these wounds permanently heal over.
I didn’t speak to Shawn Colvin about any of this. All I wanted to talk about was her songs. It was only as I prepared some questions and read around a bit that I realised how much her own life has been affected by similar issues. She’s written about this extensively and on the way back from the interview we did at AC towers she told me more about her own life. Here, elsewhere but in her own words, is how she’s described her struggle with mental illness:
“I think there’s a misconception that if one is an artist and, like myself, sings sad or sensitive material, that you’re risking losing that if you treat depression,” she said. “But when I’ve been seriously biologically depressed I’m actually unable to do anything.”
“In fact, being treated for depression restores me to be able to do what I do,” Colvin explained. “So, for people who are familiar with my music and like it, they should know that 90 percent of my recorded work has been done while I’ve been taking medicine for depression.”
So, as so often happens here on the AC, a disparate couple of artists – albeit with Texas connections – make up a fascinating pairing for two hours. Troubled, tortured but with grace and healing in their work we give you a very special Another Country this weekend. A special tribute to Townes Van Zandt seventy years since his birth and, one of my own favourite singer songwriters of any generation – Shawn Colvin talking through some of the major songs of her 25 year career. It will be a fascinating listen. Join me if you can this Friday evening from five past eight on BBC Radio Scotland.