[photo credit: Wood Newton 1977]
A Texan by birth and a traveler by nature, Townes Van Zandt’s dark country and folk ballads mirrored his own life of haunting truths. Born in 1944 into a wealthy Fort Worth oil family, he spent his childhood moving around the country as his father’s business travel required. As a young man, he was recognized for his near genius IQ and an anticipated career in law and politics, and he attended military school in his early high school years.
Some say that Van Zandt was being groomed for Texas governorship, but he dropped out of college in Colorado and decided to pursue a singing career. Diagnosed with manic depression in his early twenties, he was treated with insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. He tried to join the Air Force during the Vietnam War but was rejected because of his psychiatric history.
Citing influences such as Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins guitar style, Bob Dylan’s early lyrics and his friend Guy Clark, Van Zandt moved to Houston in the mid-1960’s to try his hand at the musician’s life. With Mickey Newbury’s help, he recorded what became first album, For the Sake of the Song, produced by Cowboy Jack Clement (best known for his work with Johnny Cash) and released in 1968 by Poppy Records.
The next five years were the most prolific of Van Zandt’s career, as Poppy and Tomato Records released five more albums: Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High Low and In Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included the meat of what made him a legend in songwriting circles: ‘For the Sake of the Song,’ ‘To Live’s to Fly,’ ‘Tecumseh Valley,’ ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ and many more. Van Zandt’s personal behavior bordered on erratic, and 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 perform shows.
Thought influential to many, Van Zandt never achieved mainstream success himself, in part because lived the life of drinking, depression, rambling and gambling that he sang about. In 1977, he released Live at the Old Quarter, Houston. This record (as well as 2001’s Live at McCabe’s) showcases him at his best, with just an acoustic guitar and an enraptured audience, paired with Van Zandt’s self-deprecating charm and dry humor. Others found commercial success in his music – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson rose to the top of country charts in 1983 with a version of Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty.’
From the early 1970s until his death on New Year’s Day in 1997 (of a blood clot in the lungs following hip surgery), Townes toured frequently, driven in large part, his friends said, by inner demons. Generally shy and reserved, Van Zandt struggled with alcohol and heroin throughout his adult life. At times he would become drunk on stage and forget the lyrics to his songs. Van Zandt’s dark material and public struggles with addiction were powerful beacons for many fans who were dealing with depression and similar issues.
The LA TImes once hailed Van Zandt as “a cross between Woody Guthrie and Leonard Cohen.” Steve Earle put it a little more strongly: “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.” To this Van Zandt replied: “I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”
Listen: Tecumseh Valley (from the album Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas)
I came across a 1987 interview which lists these albums as Townes Van Zandt’s top LP’s of all time, and given recent discussions, it seemed appropriate to include here:
1. Hard Again – Muddy Waters
2. Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 4 & 5
3. The Times They Are a Changin’ – Bob Dylan
4. Sticky Fingers – Rolling Stones
5. Automobile Blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins
6. Atlantic 12 String – Blind Willie McTell
7. Tchaikovsky – Piano Concertos – Van Cliburn
8. Richard Dobson’s first LP
9. The Complete Hank Williams
10. Old #9 – Guy Clark
11. Surrealistic Pillow – Jefferson Airplane
12. Waiting for the Naked Girl to Call – Tim Henderson