Honky-Tonk Angel Susanna Van Tassel
By Raoul Hernandez
MAY 8, 2000: Blame Donn's Depot, Austin's Fifth Street landmark -- the way its two railroad cars pushed together remain a saloon from another century. Say it was the way dusk turns everything transparent, and how the bar's dim yellow light and deep shadows fill the place even when it's deserted. Especially when it's deserted. Write it off to the little square table under the red light and vintage poster, and Susanna Van Tassel casually referencing Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight. Whatever the cause, the effect is the same: Suddenly it feels like cocktail hour in a 1932 MGM film classic.
Given Van Tassel's statuesque beauty, John Barrymore might have been better suited to this first-time meeting and interview, but the wily ol' actor would have had a hard time with the 31-year-old local country singer; soft-spoken, shy, Van Tassel comes off more like Jean Arthur than Jean Harlow -- sweet, sincere. Her voice, nearly as effervescent as Arthur's, hits all the key notes between Kelly Willis and Libbi Bosworth, and to hear Van Tassel sounding taller than she already is in the low-ceilinged Broken Spoke or under the oak-treed open sky of Central Market's back deck is to be seduced by a presence almost as classic as the musical genre that chose her.
The Heart I Wear, the singer's self-released debut, is also a classic, if only for the fact that in a town where country singers are as common as cell phones and tech jobs, female country singers may begin and end with Van Tassel and Miss Xanna Don't. Hail Kelly Willis for the roots queen she is, but once Janet Lynn rode off to Nashville and Libbi Bosworth migrated to California and now Houston, Austin found itself facing a shortage of coal miner's daughters. Van Tassel, who moved to Austin in 1995 after paying a call on the boys from High Noon, had been making eyes at Texas ever since visiting her grandmother in Corpus Christi and aunts and uncles in Houston.
"I grew up in the country," she says quietly, a faint smile never far from her pretty voice. "Northern California, outside of Sebastapool, and it was all long, straight hair and natural. Then I came here, and I was totally fascinated by my aunts, 'cause they all had frosted hair, wore make-up, had long nails, and drove in big cars. It was cool."
She chuckles, pausing a moment over the portrait of her 16-month-old son Frankie before putting it back in her wallet. She looks at the picture of her other baby -- her brand-new disc -- whose cover has been slid across the table for discussion. Beginning as demos for Watermelon Records, the album was initially recorded when Van Tassel was eight months pregnant, and later scrapped and started anew when she had a toddler in tow. As if she didn't have enough to do.
"I know, but that's what I'm telling you," she says emphatically. "I needed to do this, because these songs have been in my head, and I've been playing them, and I needed to get them down -- get 'em out. Since I've put out the CD, I've started new songs -- finished new songs. It's just been really good."
Produced by Bruce Robison and sporting one of his songs, The Heart I Wear also features an all-star cast of local country musicians -- Justin Treviño, Lisa Pankratz, Dave Biller, Casper Rawls, Eamon McLoughlin, Gene Elders, Earl Poole Ball, Rich Brotherton, Brad Fordham, and Chris Searles -- as well as a handful of spry originals to go with Eddy Arnold's sorrowful "You Don't Know Me" and two Pankratz razzlers, "You Broke the Rules" and "You Won't Make Up Your Mind." Van Tassel's contributions, particularly "Before This Heartache Ends" and the LP's best cut, the lonely title track, find the singer high on the songwriter's learning curve. It may be rather light fare by hardcore country standards, but at a lean 30 minutes, it's a tasty Deep Eddy jukebox EP hungry for another quarter.
"My songs aren't as good as everybody else's," Van Tassel admits.
Now, now ...
"Well that's the way I feel, of course, like, 'Oh, my little songs,'" she laughs. "'The Heart I Wear,' I remember I went to the Spoke one night; I like going to the Broken Spoke. I like playing there, too. One night, I just had to get out of the house, but then once I got there, I was like, 'Okay, I better just leave, 'cause this is not working.' I was just feeling crappy, I guess, so I went home and wrote the song. That's how I felt, because I'm the kinda person you can read like a book. Maybe you have to know me, but I just felt totally naked with the way I felt, feeling sorry for myself -- heartsick."
It's not hard to imagine Van Tassel succumbing to an old-fashioned bout of melancholy. It fits her gentle nature somehow, though fragility isn't something that comes to mind under her direct gaze. Still, she doesn't necessarily seem the type to be out in nightclubs belting out Loretta Lynn.
"I don't know, sometimes I think ... " she trails off. "I've wondered ... I don't like being shy. People who are shy don't like being shy. Especially when I wanted to get out in front of people, and it was so hard. It took a lot of years of falling on my face, and just getting used to it."
Having a father for a musician may have preordained Van Tassel's destiny, of course, even if he was gone by the time she was three; she fondly remembers him singing her and her sister Hank Snow songs when they were small.
"He has perfect pitch," she remarks. "He's in the movie Bullitt. Have you seen Bullitt? They're the bar band -- the girl with the flute, and him, playing guitar ... I've been wanting to rent it so I can seem him again. They're just playing in the background, but they get a shot. And the story is that Steve McQueen saw them playing and invited them to be in the movie."
Following her father's footsteps and moving to Bullitt's Bay-side setting at 19, Van Tassel eventually left San Francisco's burgeoning roots scene for Austin's full-blown country fairground. Asked if she wasn't intimidated by folks like Don Walser, Dale Watson, and Monte Warden, she shakes her head. She arrived here with a broken heart and nothing to lose. She took chances.
"People were so welcoming and so ready for me to sing," she says with a touch of wonder in her voice. "'When are you gonna do something?' they'd ask. Cause there wasn't Libbi when I first moved here, and there weren't many women period. That really fueled me.
"Dale Watson, for one -- and he doesn't even get it. I told him, 'Thank you,' and he was like, 'I didn't do nuthing.' He was the one who asked me up to sing every Thursday at Ginny's Little Longhorn for a while. People responded to it, and that gave me a good platform to bounce off of. There's such a love for music here, and people who want to hear it."
Those who want to hear Van Tassel will have to frequent Austin to see her, since as her own label head, she's decided not to allot herself any tour-support money. Frankie's only young once, she reasons, and motherhood is "better than any gig I'm gonna do, or show I'm gonna get.
"I'd rather put my energy into writing and playing around here," she says candidly, "the place I like to play. Not to put a ceiling on the possibilities out there, or my ambition or anything, but that's kinda where it's at. It's a weird thing. It changes. But I like to sing, and that's what drives the whole thing. That's what drove me to ever get up in front of people when I was really scared. But I wanted to sing, and I didn't want to just sing in my room. I don't know why; I probably just should have stuck with that."
Dark movie theatres were always good for that -- safe haven.
"What happened with that is when I was a kid, me and my sister, who was mentally disabled, would go to therapy, and I'd wait in the waiting room. The therapist had this Hollywood book she eventually gave me, and I would pore through that book. Every week, I would pore through it. And it just, you know -- there's something about those movies that just sparks your imagination."
Just then, Van Tassel's dreamy Jean Arthur gets a Harlowesque gleam in her eye.
"And did you know that in Mrs. Miniver, Walter Pidgeon, when he's in his pajamas, his thingy pops out?"
Ooo, umm -- roll credits.
"Nobody ever believes me!"
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