Plenty of musicians pay reverence to Townes Van Zandt, but not so many look upon him as a father figure.
Michael Dean Damron does both. He used to hang out with the Texas singer-songwriter at Poor David's Pub, a Dallas watering hole where Van Zandt would perform signature songs like "Tecumseh Valley" and "Pancho and Lefty" while getting so drunk that he'd end up knocking his harmonica and drinks off the table.
"We'd drink together from time to time," says Damron, who'd tend bar and do whatever else was necessary during shows. "Steve Earle used to play there all the time before he went to prison, and the Dixie Chicks would play there way before they got big. Townes would come in and literally play for 30 people.
"He reminded me of my dad in the fact that he had a similar facial structure and he had that alcoholic hue, you know, kind of jaundiced with skinny legs and a little Buddha belly. And so I took to him, because my father wasn't around, but when I was around Townes, it felt like I was with my dad."
Damron pays tribute to both Van Zandt and his real dad on his new album, Father's Day, a mongrel country-rock revelation that showcases his talent for juxtaposing jaw-dropping humor and poignant, sometimes harrowing storytelling.
In addition to Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die" and the title track's homage to his dad, the album includes "Dark Little Secret," a tale of family abuse in which Damron doesn't pull any punches: "Lay on your deathbed / Sucking your last breath / God damn you look at me / Don't turn away."
"That song's not about my father by any means," says Damron. "I kind of thought about that [misconception] before I recorded it, but it's actually a composite of stories from three different people I know. I just kind of mashed them all together."
Everything must go
Originally from Las Vegas, Damron eventually found his way to Portland, Ore. Once there, he fronted the raucous I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, which I bring up mainly because I like saying it so much.
"Yeah, everybody did, it just rolls off the tongue," says Damron. "I wish I'd never got rid of it, but there was other dudes in the band that didn't write one song but would've bitched up and down all day if I'd kept it [after breaking up]."
I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House (which turns out to be less fun to write than it is to say) managed four albums and five years of touring before Damron pulled the plug at the end of 2006. The band's record label, In Music We Trust, subsequently sent out a press release announcing that ICLASITH was "liquidating" both its van and bank account.
Damron says that even though the bank balance in question was pretty small, the band had reached the point of regularly pulling in $500 to $1,000 guarantees.
"We had a manager guy who's been in the business for a while," says Damron. "I mean, he was like a real manager. It wasn't like your girlfriend sitting around trying to figure out your zodiac sign."
With his new backing band, Thee Loyal Bastards, Damron has adopted a more stripped-down approach.
"It's more like how Johnny Cash used to do it in the '50s: no drums and more acoustic, organic-type sounds. I'm tired of drummers, I'm tired of dealing with drummers, I'm tired of fucking paying drummers."
Besides, he adds, there's no way a drummer and his kit would fit into the Jeep Liberty that Damron and his Bastards are currently calling home.
Clouds of joy
While it may seem out of character, Damron sounds almost optimistic about the future these days. He's got a wife and kid, he's quit drinking, and he even talks about "delving into the spiritual side of things."
"I'm not talking about religious shit, but just trying to find something bigger than myself, something to kind of believe in."
He's been listening to a lot of Staples Singers, he says, and would like to convey the feeling of that on his next album: "I'll never be able to sing like that — probably no white man could," he says. "But I'd like it to have that spirit and those gospel overtones."
Just don't expect it to be upbeat: Part of Damron's charm can be found in songs like "Boy With a Car," in which homespun sentiments ("I like my grandma's meatloaf and old scary movies") instantly give way to bitter resentment ("And I don't mind walking, so fuck you, him, and his car").
"I've been there where the girl leaves you for something better, because you can't get a job or whatever," explains Damron. "And, man, my grandma did make good meatloaf, that's for sure."
"Hallelujah" by Michael Dean Damron & Thee Loyal Bastards