Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 7 March 1944, Fort Worth TX; d 1 January 1997, Nashville) Elusive, highly regarded Texas singer- songwriter and guitarist. His best-known song is 'Pancho And Lefty', recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard for a no. 1 country hit; Emmylou Harris and Don Williams covered his 'If I Needed You' for another duet hit. This only scratches the surface, however; his whole catalog of songs is deeply loved by people who know Texas music. 

An ancestor helped to draft the Texas state constitution; there is a Van Zandt County in East Texas, and the law building at the U. of Texas at Austin is called Townes Hall. He was apparently bi-polar and soon an alcoholic but he was always in control of himself; music was always the most important thing. He graduated from Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota and attended the U. of Colorado at Boulder; when he forged a letter of release and skipped college for a couple of weeks to visit a friend in Oklahoma, his family had him locked up in a psychiatric hospital in Galveston for three months of insulin-coma/ electric-shock treatment, which probably didn't do him any good. He then enrolled in pre-law at the U. of Houston, but his father died suddenly in January 1966 and music took over completely.

His first influence had been Elvis Presley: 'There were stars before him but they had sort of round edges.' Among later influences was Lightnin' Hopkins, and he learned to finger-pick from a Hoyt Axton record. He lived and chummed with Richard Dobson, Guy and Susanna Clark, and began writing 'funny bar-room type ''songs'' just to get the audience'; his first serious song was 'Waitin' Around To Die', included on his first album For The Sake Of A Song '68, followed by Our Mother The Mountain '69, Townes Van Zandt '70, Delta Mama Blues '71 (the title song refers to a cough syrup, a drug-store high called Delta Mama, co-written while working in a trio called the Delta Mama Boys; he normally did not write with others). Then came High, Low And In Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt '73 (with 'Pancho And Lefty') and another not then released, all on a Poppy label with poor distribution. [The label boss at Poppy was Kevin Eggers, whose troublesome business relationship with Van Zandt went on for years; Poppy went broke, whereupon Eggers formed the Tomato label, which has gone broke at least once, and always had an interesting catalog that was always hard to find.]

John Lomax III was Van Zandt's manager in the mid-1970s, but could not straighten out the financial mess with Eggers; Lomax had his hands full keeping Van Zandt out of trouble: according to one story, unable to get a drink in a crowded bar he left, phoned in a bomb threat and strolled in after the place was cleared. For much of the 1970s Van Zandt lived alone in a shack in Tennessee with no indoor plumbing. At around the time Eggers formed Tomato, his younger brother Harold Eggers became Van Zandt's road manager, but he mostly played very small venues. The two-disc set Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas '77 (recorded four years earlier) and Flyin' Shoes '78 came out on Tomato, and most of the Poppy albums were reissued on Tomato. Live And Obscure on Heartland (later on Sugar Hill) was made live in Nashville '85; At My Window '87 on Sugar Hill was his first studio album in nine years, produced by Jack Clement and Jim Rooney. Songbook For The Sake Of A Song and feature film The New Country with Townes, Clark, Charlie Daniels, David Allen Coe and others appeared in the late '70s; albums Rain On A Conga Drum: Live In Berlin '91, Roadsongs '92, No Deeper Blue '94 were on Sugar Hill; also The Nashville Sessions '93 (recorded '74) on Tomato, later on Rhino; Rear View Mirror on Intercord; and there were more: the catalog is chaotic. The two-disc Anthology 1968-1979 on Fuel/Varése Sarabande is a good compilation, with 40 tracks

He did not know where the songs came from, saying, 'All of a sudden it just pops into your brain.' Nashville singer Jonell Mosser released an album of covers Around Townes; a new live album The Highway Kind '97 was a somewhat raggedy live collection including covers of Guy Clark and Leon Payne; meanwhile he had broken his hip in Austin in December 1996, attended the first recording sessions for a new album on Geffen in a wheelchair, but died of a pulmonary embolism.

A live version of Van Zandt's cover of The Rolling Stones' 'Dead Flowers' was used during the final scene of the Coen Brothers' 1998 film, The Big Lebowski. A documentary, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, directed by Margaret Brown, was released in 2006; John Kruth's biography To Love's To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt came out in 2007; Robert Earl Hardy's book A Deeper Blue - The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt was praised in 2008 by Arthur Wood at

I'll Be Here In The Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt 2012 from the Texas A&M U. Press was edited by Brian T. Atkinson, with scores af articles by Van Zandt's peers and disciples. Guy Clark calls him "the Van Gogh of country music". Another contributor, Graham Leader, was the producer of the documentary Heartworn Highways, about the Texas country music scene of the 1980s; you can see Van Zandt's 'Waitin' Around To Die' here.