Townes Van Zandt

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Townes Van Zandt (John Townes Van Zandt, 1944-1997) was a country-folk singer-songwriter and poet. He is considered by many to have been one of the best songwriters ever. While alive, Van Zandt was labeled a cult musician. He had a small, devoted fan base, but never achieved large success as a singer/performer, and often had trouble keeping his albums in print. Perhaps his greatest achievement was writing Pancho and Lefty, a song which Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded in 1983, that scored a #1 hit on the Billboard country music charts. Although he never attained great fame with the general public, he is regarded with high esteem in the music industry and with songwriters in particular, and his lyrics continue to inspire many songwriters today, even being the subject of lyric writing classes. Some of his songs, including "If I Needed You," "To Live is to Fly," and "For the Sake of Song" are considered standards of the country and folk genres. His song lyrics are often bitter-sweet, sometimes filled with hopelessness or despair. Van Zandt struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse for most of his life, which resulted in his death in 1997, at the age of 52.


Townes Van Zandt was born on March 7, 1944, into a wealthy oil family. His parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt and Dorothy Townes. The third great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt, a prominent figure of the Republic of Texas, Townes was groomed for political office. In his early life he was known for both his intellect and his athletic prowess. After being diagnosed as a manic-depressive, he was subjected to insulin shock therapy which removed most of his memories. This caused a marked change in Townes' personality, leading him to be more reclusive and drop all athletic endeavors. According to the 2004 documentary Be Here to Love Me, Townes' mother ultimately regretted approving her son to be administrated the insulin shock treatments. [1] Van Zandt's interests in singer-songwriters lead him to drop out college and abandon politics. He fathered three children, JT, Bill and Katie Belle with Jeanene Van Zandt. Although Jeanene and Townes ultimately divorced, they remained close friends. One of Townes' greatest early music influences was Texas-blues singer Lightnin' Hopkins. From the mid 60s through the 80s, Van Zandt released several albums, and spent the majority of his career playing at various dive bars and honky tonks, many of them in Texas, often to crowds of 50 people or less. The original Old Quarter in Houston was a regular stomping ground for Townes, where he met many of his lifelong friends, including Rex Bell, Mickey White, Lightnin' Hopkins, Richard Dobson, Blaze Foley and others. For several years, Van Zandt did not have a permanent residence, and would often sleep in cheap motel rooms or on friend's couches. Occasionally, his songs would get the attention of prominent members of the music industry (Townes apparently turned down several offers to write songs for Bob Dylan). Several of Van Zandt's songs were recorded by other artists. Country singers Emmylou Harris and Don Williams recorded If I Needed You in 1981, which scored a #3 hit on the country charts, along with Nelson and Haggard's #1 hit recording Pancho and Lefty in 1983. Despite these brief moments of critical acclaim, Van Zandt remained a "cult musician", and he never actively sought fame or a big record deal.

Death and Influence

Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997. The official cause was cardiac arrhythmia, resulting from years of alcohol and substance abuse. The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt's work. A documentary by director Margaret Brown about Townes' life titled "Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt" was released in 2004. John Kruth wrote a Townes biography, "To Live's to Fly - The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt". Upon his death, artists Steve Earle, and Diane Craig both wrote a tribute song to Townes. In 2009, Earle recorded and released an album called "Townes", consisting entirely of songs written by Van Zandt. Additionally, Townes Van Zandt's songs are so far-reaching and influential, they have been covered by many artists, including, and as varied as, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch, Cowboy Junkies, John Prine, Guy Clark, and Wrecks Bell. Steve Earle once stated that "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." A total of Forty albums were released (some posthumously) in Townes' name.

Annual Townes Van Zandt Wake

An annual Townes Van Zandt wake is held every year on the evening of January 1rst at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, in Galveston Texas, as a musical tribute to Townes' songs. Musicians from Texas, the US and Europe congregate for an evening of Townes' music, played by amateurs and professional musicians alike. Rex Bell, the proprietor, always sings the first and last songs of the evening. Traditionally, photo albums and a bottle of vodka, Townes' favorite drink, are set before the stage for all to share.

Lawsuit over royalty payments

Townes, and later his Estate, allegedly had many problems receiving royalty payments or even a basic accounting of his album sales. In 2005, Jeanene and the Estate of Townes Van Zandt filed a lawsuit in NY District Court against Kevin Eggers, EGGE Co., TOMATO records and others for lack of royalty payments and other infringements pertaining to Townes' music and film footage.

Songs of Townes Van Zandt covered by other artists

ArtistSong Titles
Willy Nelson & Merle HaggardPancho and Lefty
Norah JonesBe Here to Love Me
EmmyLou HarrisIf I Needed You
Lyle LovettFlyin' Shoes, Be Here to Love Me
Guy ClarkDon't You Take It Too Bad
Nanci GriffithTecumseh Valley

The Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys

The Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys served as Townes' backup band for many years and consisted of Rex ("Wrecks") Bell, the namesake of "Rex's Blues", on bass guitar, Mickey White on lead guitar and Mike Edwards on drums. Mickey went on to become a teacher in the Round Rock (TX) area while Rex became a solo artist with several albums to his credit. Rex and J.T. Van Zandt, Townes' son, recorded a live album together titled "Live at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe". Rex Bell also played bass for Lucinda Williams and Lightnin' Hopkins, a friend and influence of Townes.