Originally published at GratefulWeb.net
Fame didn't seem to be something Townes Van Zandt was after in life but since his tragic and unexpected death in 1997 at the age of 52, he's gradually moved more and more into the Americana limelight. Not only is one of his many previously un-known songs the title track to Mike's new album, but Steve Earle, who was mentored by Van Zandt and who remained a life-long friend, has a new tribute album compiled in his honor on the way. There's also an all-star tribute album, "Poet, a Tribute to Townes Van Zandt", out featuring Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, John Prine and others, Lonestar Music. Since his death, two books, a documentary film and more have been composed in his memory.
A cult figure in Roots/Country music and Outlaw Country since the 70s, Van Zandt was a huge influence on many, many artists from a wide range of genres, (from Bob Dylan to Robert Plant). He had an impact on so many, in fact, that he's almost better described as a force of music nature, some sort of raw muse, than just a singer/songwriter. He's been aptly called both "one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation" (AllMusic) and "one of the most underrated songwriters of the century" (AOLMusic).
In his recent interviw with "Rolling Stone", Steve Earle says of him:
"It's how I learned to play; it's how I learned to perform...I finger pick like he did. He was sitting right in front of me when I was really learning to play...I've only seen a handful of people that were as good as he was."
In spite of all of this and some material success via singles like, "Poncho and Lefty", (taken to #1 on the Billboard Country charts by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Townes never had a successful album or single of his own. Some of that seems to have been due to bad production, some perehaps to management choices, lifestyle choices, but it seems that he cared more about song-writing than being in the lime-light when you got right down to it.
For example, Van Zandt turned down repeated invitations to write with Bob Dylan. The two admired one anothers music but it is said that Dylan's celebrity didn't appeal to Van Zandt. They ultimately met by accident outside a costume shop in Austin in 1986, (well, I wouldn't say accident, I'd say there aren't any accidents that big - instant karma seems more like it). Dylan later arranged another meeting with him and for it, The Drag in Austin was shut down for Dylan and Van Zandt drove his motorhome to the quartered-off area. (I wonder if they didn't actually sit down and write something that day and just didn't tell...)
Incidentally, when Steve Earle once said of Townes that he was, "the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Van Zandt wryly responded: "I've met Bob Dylan's bodyguards and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table, he's sadly mistaken."
So, though hugely influential now and certianly brilliant, (or maybe in part because he was brilliant and that can be harder to sell), he spent most of his life touring around playing small bars, sleeping in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins and on friends' couches. He also was notoriously addicted to drugs and alcohol and, per Wikkipedia, known for his tendancy to tell tall tales, (maybe they weren't -- maybe he, as our host here once told me he did, just took good notes).
Contrastingly, he was born in Fort Worth, Texas to an oil-wealthy family, the third-great-grandson of one of the founders of the city. (Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848.) His father was a corporate lawyer and His family moved a lot, a habit Townes seems to have embraced and retained throughout his life. (Though he developed an attachment to Colorado, where he said he sometimes spent entire summers alone on horseback in the mountains.)
When his parents discovered their son had a genius IQ, they began grooming him to be a a lawyer or senator, (and I'll bet he'd have been a great one if that's what he'd wanted to do - well, maybe with some changes to the drug/alcohol/Townes ratio - but imagine the speeches he'd have written. And Dylan & Steve Earle as VP & Secretary of State please...)
While at the University of Colorado at Boulder, his parents became concerned that he was depressed and drinking heavily. They brought him back to Houston and admitted him to a psychiatric hospital where, unfortunately, he diagnosed with manic depression. At the time, a treatment for this was, even more unfortunately, insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Afterwards, he was accepted into law school but utlimately quit for good around 1967 to pursue music. And good thing for the world he did. His music is quite accurately described in his AOL Music bio as something that:
"...doesn't jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. Whether he was singing a quiet, introspective country-folk song or a driving, hungry blues, Van Zandt's lyrics and melodies were filled with the kind of haunting truth and beauty that you knew instinctively...He could bring you down to a place so sad that you felt like you were scraping bottom, but just as quickly he could lift your spirits and make you smile at the sparkle of a summer morning or a loved one's eyes -- or raise a chuckle with a quick and funny talking blues. The magic of his songs is that they never leave you alone."
Soon, Van Zandt met and was inspired by Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Doc Watson and others who played in the Houston music scene at the time. He played mostly cover songs until encouraged by his father at the end of his life, (1966), to quit it and write his own songs. In 1968, songwriter Mickey Newbury talked him into going to Nashville, where he introduced him to "Cowboy" Jack Clement, who became his producer.
Due in part to Van Zandt's focus on songwriting rather than recording, Clement took some often unfortunate creative license with his albums. This probably had a little to do with the fact that they didn't sell well. But that just wasn't Van Zandt's priority. I have a feeling that, had it been, he'd have been as famous as he liked. On second thought, maybe he was as famous as he liked.
For much of the 1970s, he lived a reclusive life outside of Nashville in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack with no heat, plumbing or telephone, occasionally appearing in town to play shows. Steve Earle would later say that Van Zandt's primary concerns during this time period were planting morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey's radio show, and watching the sitcom Happy Days. (Wikkipedia)
In 1975, Van Zandt was featured prominently in the documentary film "Heartworn Highways" with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and David Allen Coe. Van Zandt is shown drinking straight whiskey during the middle of the day, shooting and playing with guns, and performing the songs "Waitin' Around to Die" and "Pancho & Lefty" at his trailer home in Austin with his soon-to-be second wife Cindy and dog Geraldine.
So what exactly is it that moves the son of a Texas oil baron to become a wayward drifter? Rebellion? Maybe. It would seem on the outside that it was all about depression and addiction, with resultant mis-managed opportunities and missed chances. But, then again, he sure seemed to know what he was doing and he sure was good at it. Would his songs have been as good if he'd not remained a sort of living representation of them, (which stardom would certainly have made impossible)? Maybe his career, was more well thought out than it appears; he just did it his way.
In the mid-1970s, Van Zandt split from his longtime manager, Kevin Eggers and moved to John Lomax III, (grandson of the famed folk music historian John Lomax). Lomax started a fan club for him which, though only advertised through small ads in the back of music magazines, began to receive hundreds of impassioned letters from around the world from people who felt touched by Van Zandt.
In the Summer of 1978, he fired Lomax and re-hired Eggers. He soon after signed to Egger's new label, Tomato Records and recorded "Flyin' Shoes' the following year. He would not release another album until 1987's At My Window but continued to tour.
Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early '90s. In 1990, he toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and wrote a song for them, "Cowboy Junkies Lament," (with a verse for each member). They also wrote a song for him, "Townes Blues".
Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, featuring covers by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, they released No Deeper Blue, his first studio album since 1987, recorded in Ireland with Irish musicians.
Van Zandt was married 3 times. First to Fran Petters on August 26, 1965; with whom he had a son, John Townes "J.T." Van Zandt II. They divorced in 1970. He moved in with Cindy Morgan in late 1974, and the two married in Nashville in September 1978. They became estranged for much of the early 1980s, and were divorced in 1983. His third and final marriage was in 1983 to Jeanene Munsell, who he met in 1980 at a memorial for John Lennon. They had 2 children, William Vincent and Katie Bell. They divorced in 1994 but remained close until Townes' death.
On December 19 or 20, Van Zandt fell down the stairs outside his home, badly injuring his hip, and refused medical treatment. Determined to finish an album that he had scheduled to record with Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar, he showed up to the studio in a wheelchair with Eggers. Shelley canceled.
Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, but not before returning to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, eight days passed since the injury. On December 31, X-rays revealed that Van Zandt had an impacted left femoral neck fracture in his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed.
Jeanene informed the surgeon that one of Townes' previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him. She checked Townes out of the hospital against medical advice. Understanding that he would most likely drink immediately after leaving the hospital, the physicians refused to prescribe him any painkillers.
"By the time Van Zandt was checked out of the hospital early the next morning, he had begun to show signs of DTs. Jeanene rushed him to her car, where she gave him a flask of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Smyrna, Tennessee and giving him alcohol, he was "lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone." (Wikkipedia)
Unfortunately, Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997 at the age of 52, 44 years to the day after Hank Williams, who he stated was one of his main songrwriting influences. His official cause of death was "natural" cardiac arrhythmia.
Five years before his death, when asked by an interviewer from "No Depression Magazine" if he thought the growing interest in country music the popularity of Garth Brooks had spawned would benefit him, Townes made this remarkable and insightful statement:
"No, I don't think, as a matter of fact, that I'm going to benefit from anything on this earth. It's more like that, I mean, if you have love on the earth, that seems to be number one. There's food, water, air and love, right? And love is just basically heartbreak. Human's can't live in the present as animals do; they just live in the present. But human's are always thinking about the future or the past. So, it's a veil of tears, man. And I don't know anything that's going to benefit me except more love. I just need an overwhelming amount of love. And a nap. Mostly a nap."
And so it seems the world lost one of it's few true free spirits in a truly tragic way. But, then again, can it be said that someone like Townes Van Zandt is ever really gone? I don't think so. In fact, his music continues to breathe with new life and force. It seems that it's intent is so direct it transcends normal human boundaries. Even death.
So, it's sort of like, we didn't hear that much about his music for so long because, well, like Townes, it kinda spent a lot of time napping, existing just beneath the surface of what most people are aware of. But it's there, as in dreams, that we are all really influenced the most.
More from Townes Van Zandt Central
Interview with Steve Earle about Townes and his upcoming album of Van Zandt tunes in Roling Stone