Perhaps the purest poet of all Texas songwriters, Townes Van Zandt wrote essential love songs and portrayed the shattered lives of lonely outsiders. Sometimes his fingers stumbled, and his voice was barely up to the task, but there was never any music more real. Brutal observations of life’s lows, often based on personal experience, followed by a lullaby of perfect beauty and hope.
Born of a prominent Fort Worth family, Van Zandt didn’t live anywhere for long, bouncing between Austin, Houston, Nashville, Colorado and other places of refuge. A wanderer and a troubadour, never far from trouble, his heart gave out in 1997, just too big to last too long.
His father gave him a guitar for Christmas in 1956, and after watching Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show that same year, decided he too would become a musician.
Townes was an intelligent and precocious child but began to struggle with depression as a young man, and would struggle with alcohol and drug dependencies his whole life. In 1962 he was diagnosed with manic depression and received insulin shock therapy that erased much of his short-term memory. He was then prevented from joining the Air Force after a finding of acute depression.
Van Zandt decided to seriously pursue his artistic ambitions and began playing regularly in Houston clubs, where he met folks like Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Eric Taylor. He started out covering the songs of others but was soon writing his own stuff, and making a splash with the quality of that work. In 1968 he met Mickey Newbury, who invited him to Nashville and introduced Townes to “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who would become his producer well into the future.
Over his career Van Zandt released ten albums of original work. He died of heart failure on New Year’s Day, 1997, leaving his then wife Jeanene and four children, John Townes “J.T.” Van Zandt II, William Vincent Van Zandt, Katie Belle Van Zandt and Chad Whitson. Three LP’s of demo material were released after his death.
Van Zandt is touted as the heart and soul of Texas songwriting, and is an acknowledged influence on an array of important artists, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch and Conor Oberst, and his songs have been covered by artists too numerous to mention. His songs always silenced the room. They still do.
Townes Van Zandt lived life the only way his soul permitted. His ghost is always with us, just beyond the light, gaunt but smiling, fire in his eyes and liquor on his breath. Performers reach for his songs at the end of the night, maybe in tribute, or maybe because they need them just like the rest of us.
Three things to know about Townes Van Zandt: (1) Van Zandt County in East Texas is named for his family, (2) Townes’ closest friends were Guy and Susanna Clark, and they spent much time around the Clark’s kitchen table in Nashville, schooling young writers, and (3) after his death, and according to his wishes, Israeli singer David Broza recorded Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt, a random collection of Townes’ unreleased poems and lyrics which he set to music.