Vincent Neil Emerson Is Guided by the Spirit of Townes Van Zandt on Stark New Album

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2021-3-30-Vincent-Neil-Emerson-Mamiya-M645-Ilford-HP5-FS-5-2 - Credit: Scott Willis*
2021-3-30-Vincent-Neil-Emerson-Mamiya-M645-Ilford-HP5-FS-5-2 - Credit: Scott Willis*

Vincent Neil Emerson was watching Edward Norton portray both a rhapsodizing stoner and his straitlaced brother in 2009’s Leaves of Grass when the actor began singing a Townes Van Zandt song onscreen. Emerson, a native of East Texas, hadn’t yet discovered the tragic songwriter at the time and he dutifully studied the film’s closing credits to see who was responsible for writing “Rex’s Blues.”

“I found the name Townes Van Zandt, went to YouTube and just typed it in, and the first video was of him playing ‘Waiting Around to Die,’” Emerson, 29, says. Van Zandt’s stark lyricism and haunted singing style left him floored, and he began to devour the catalog, from “To Live Is to Fly” to “Rex’s Blues,” which he still considers his favorite song. “Townes,” Emerson says, “I think he’s the greatest songwriter to ever live.”

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The influence and spirit of Van Zandt permeates Emerson’s new album, a self-titled collection of 10 songs produced by another Texas hero, Rodney Crowell. He sings about the suicide of his father in “Learnin’ to Drown,” risky life decisions and a lack of prospects in “High on Getting By,” and a 1963 forced sale of Native American acres by the government in “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache.” (His maternal grandmother is from the Choctaw-Apache tribe of Ebarb, Louisiana.) “Well you take away their home, then you claim what you don’t own/Well I guess it’s still the American way,” he sings.

The darker, Townes-like writing of Vincent Neil Emerson is in stark contrast to the songs Emerson was singing on his 2019 debut, Fried Chicken and Evil Women. Those were lighter, up-tempo and often tongue-in-cheek, with turns of phrase reminiscent of Roger Miller or Jonny Fritz. Emerson is a diehard Fritz fan and even name-checks the Sweet Creep singer in the Fried Chicken and Evil Women track “25 & Wastin’ Time.”

“I’ve always wanted to write more serious songs. The first record that I did, I wrote all those songs when I was in my early 20s, playing a lot of honky-tonks and barbecue joints and a lot of long gigs in front of dance hall crowds. For a long time, I catered to the audience that I was in front of,” Emerson says, adding that he wasn’t “equipped mentally” back then to address such heavy topics.

He also didn’t have the expertise of Crowell guiding him in the studio. The pair recorded Vincent Neil Emerson at Sound Emporium in Nashville. “Rodney can go either way as far as production. He’s produced a lot of albums and a lot of different styles of stuff,” Emerson says. “But for this one, he knew that the songs were in the vein of Guy Clark and Townes and they didn’t really need much as far as production go. They needed to just sound good.”

For all the tributes to Townes Van Zandt in his work — he sings the title of “Waiting Around to Die” in “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” and a line from “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” in last year’s collab with friend Colter Wall, “Road Runner” — Emerson says he was most inspired by another Townes when writing the more vulnerable material of his new album.

“I’m a huge fan of a guy named Justin Townes Earle,” he says, citing the Americana songwriter, who died in 2020. “He kind of laid everything out there and he didn’t hold back as far as personal stuff goes.”

It’s that soul-baring that Emerson hopes country fans will latch onto in his new songs. He’s evolved and matured since writing about greasy wings and malevolent ladies, and sees Vincent Neil Emerson as his own therapy session.

“As you get older, you kind of learn how to deal with your feelings and emotions a little bit better,” he says. “If nobody likes this record for the way it sounds, at least someone can appreciate its honesty.”

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