The Sad Story of Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt is a legendary singer songwriter. To some degree, he was the stereotype: A brilliant writer who was not hugely successful during his lifetime and who died early by way of extreme substance abuse. His fame came when it no longer could do him any good.

Texas Monthly ran a very interesting story by Michael Hall about Van Zandt, who was born in 1944. His immediate family was comfortable. Indeed, the Van Zandts had played an important role in Texas history. There is a county named after them and his great-great-grandfather, Isaac Van Zandt, was appointed chargé d’affaires to the United States by Sam Houston in 1842.

The idea was that Townes – who was said to be a genius – would become a politician or a lawyer.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Van Zandt was happy go lucky, easy going and not concerned with money. He had a gift for song writing, became a heavy drinker and was diagnosed as a manic depressive. Treatments included something with the scary name “insulin shock therapy.” It ruined his long term memory. The bios follow the whole sad story, until he suffered a heart attack and died on New Year’s Day 1997. It was the 44 years to the day after the death of Hank Williams, one of Van Zandt’s major influences.

The Texas Monthly story describes the reaction of far more famous performers after his death:

[…] Susanna Clark, who was one of Townes’s best friends, recalled how her husband, Guy, and Rodney Crowell reacted to seeing a TV interview with Griffith after he died. Griffith had said, “If there weren’t a Townes Van Zandt, there would be no Nanci Griffith.” Hearing that, Crowell said, “There’d be no Rodney Crowell.” Guy said, “There’d be no Guy Clark.” You could add Lovett, Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely to that list, as well as hundreds of wannabes with acoustic guitars and whiskey visions learning to play “Pancho and Lefty,” analyzing every twist and shade in its melody and lyrics and dreaming of the open road. For better and worse, Townes was the most influential Texas songwriter of his time.

Here is a post listing what two Stereogum editors consider to be Van Zandt’s ten best songs. Above is “Pancho and Lefty.” The song was covered by Emmylou Harris and, in 1983, became a number one hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Below is “Tecumseh Valley.”

Wikipedia and Texas Monthly were used to write this post.