He emerged in the late sixties among the renaissance in country music that brought songwriters like Kris Kristofferson to fame and he gained some renown in the early seventies alongside other artists like John Prine and Steve Goodman, each of whom, like Van Zandt, regularly played on the Austin City Limits television show.
Van Zandt was highly respected among his fellow country musicians and was an integral part of the Texas musical culture which broke away from the commercialized "Nashville Sound." He was sometimes reclusive, playing small and mid-sized Texas clubs and battling alcoholism most of his life. His songs often reflected a wistful sense of isolation and loss, punctuated with a wry sense of humor.
Having left a large corpus of songs which have been covered by numerous artists, Townes Van Zandt died on New Years Day, 1997, probably as a result of a blood clot in his lungs. Many subsequent songwriters credit him as a major influence.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas to an oil-wealthy, aristocratic family, he traveled during his youth around Texas and Colorado. He was the third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt, a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas. Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848. Van Zandt was reportedly being groomed by his family for the Texas governorship, but he dropped out of college in the 1960s after deciding to pursue a singing career.
Van Zandt was of very high intelligence and was diagnosed manic-depressive in his early twenties. He was treated with insulin shock therapy, which affected much of his long-term memory. His mental condition is thought to have contributed to both the passion and the sense of isolation evident in his songs. For much of the 1970s, he lived a reclusive life in a cabin in Tennessee, with no indoor plumbing or phone, appearing only occasionally to play shows.
Although he reportedly considered Hank Williams his idol, one of his other major influences was Texas blues man Lightnin' Hopkins, whose songs were a constant part of his repertoire. Van Zandt's best friend was fellow Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark. He was particularly well respected in the "outlaw" genre of country music that grew up in the 1970s around such figures as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson had a major hit with Van Zandt's composition "Pancho and Lefty," while Emmylou Harris and Don Williams charted with Van Zandt's love song "If I Needed You" in 1981. Van Zandt himself created a large body of original songs, recorded and published on more than a dozen albums. His musical style emphasized the poignant, often haunting lyrics and beautiful, uncomplicated melodies for which he was best known, punctuated by deft finger-picking of his guitar.
Van Zandt was master of the small, intimate show, where he would weave song and story into an unforgettable evening. Generally shy and reserved, he struggled with alcoholism throughout his adult life. At times he would become drunk on stage and forget the lyrics to his songs. Some critics believe his alcoholism inhibited his performances, whereas others believe it made his lyrical expression more genuine. His performances featured a dry humor—an integral part of his songwriting. Early in his career, he wrote many light-hearted and humorous songs. Most of his later songs, however, were either dark or bittersweet love songs and ballads, such as "For the Sake of the Song," and "Tecumseh Valley." Asked why so many of his songs were sad, he replied: "Well, many of the songs, they aren't sad, they're hopeless."
Although Van Zandt toured nationally, spent time in Nashville and Colorado, and was popular in Europe, for the most part he performed for small but appreciative audiences in Texas bars. Some think he believed, after a point, that he would only be recognized posthumously. "I don't envision a very long life for myself," he once told an interviewer. "I've kind of designed it that way." He even titled one of his relatively early albums (1972) "The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt."
He continued writing and performing through the 1990s until his death on New Years Day, 1997, most likely due to a massive blood clot in the lungs following hip surgery. He died with a flask of vodka in his hand and his daughter Katie Belle by his side. When he died his daughter reportedly told his wife Jeanene, "Momma, daddy's fightin' with his heart," pretty much summing up his life.
Townes Van Zandt is remembered as a great songwriter who inspired many musicians. He has been cited as a source of inspiration by such artists as Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Bright Eyes, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, and Meat Puppets.
The 2001 album Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt featured performances devoted to Van Zandt's legacy by Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Billy Joe Shaver, Emmylou Harris, Ray Benson, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Pat Haney, John T. Van Zandt, Cowboy Junkies, Flatlanders, and Dukes.
Nanci Griffith was quoted as saying: "I think of Townes as the greatest folk song writer that my native state of Texas ever gave birth to. Some of us song writers are just lyricists, but he was definitely a poet."
Singer-songwriter Steve Earle was even more effusive in his praise, saying: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
Several concerts have been organized as tributes to Van Zandt, featuring top country and folk acts, and dozens of artists have covered his songs on their own albums and singles. A live version of Van Zandt's "Dead Flowers" was used during the final scene of the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski.
In 2004, the film Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt chronicling the artist's life and legacy was released in the United States.
All links retrieved December 14, 2015.
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