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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 posts on a thread at The Vinyl Collective suggest that “Live at the Old Quarter” is Townes Van Zandt’s best album. “Flying Shoes” also got a mention. In 2013, Stereogum rated his ten best songs. The top five: “Nothin’ “; “Pancho & Lefty”; “No Place To Fall”; “For The Sake Of The Song” and “To Live Is To Fly.”  Click here (iTunes) or on the image (Amazon) to check out “Live at the Old Quarter.” 
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,” which 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 how his contemporaries felt about him:

[…] 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.

Above is “Pancho and Lefty.” The song has been 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.  The Vinyl Collective and Sterogum are linked to in the blue box.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

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