Townes Van Zandt Biography

John Townes Van Zandt, 7 March 1944, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, d. 1 January 1997, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, USA. A country and folk blues singer and guitarist, Van Zandt was a native Texan and great-grandson of one of the original settlers who founded Fort Worth in the mid-nineteenth century. The son of a prominent oil family, Van Zandt turned his back on financial security to pursue the beatnik life in Houston. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive in his early twenties, and the resulting insulin shock therapy wiped out his long-term memory, a condition that informed his songwriting but also contributed to a crippling alcohol addiction.

First thumbing his way through cover versions, Van Zandt’s acoustic sets later graced the Jester Lounge and other venues where his ‘bawdy bar-room ballads’ were first performed. Although little known outside of a cult country rock following, many of his songs are better publicized by the cover versions afforded them by Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Don Gibson and Willie Nelson. This gave songs such as ‘Pancho And Lefty’, ‘To Live Is To Fly’ and ‘If I Needed You’ the opportunity to rise to the top of the country charts. Much of Van Zandt’s material was not released overseas until the late 70s, although his recording career actually began with For The Sake Of The Song, released in the USA in 1968 on the Poppy label. Stand-out albums from his recording career include Our Mother The Mountain (1969) and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972), the latter featuring his first recorded versions of ‘If I Needed You’ and ‘Pancho And Lefty’. Van Zandt’s media awareness belied the debt many artists, including the Cowboy Junkies and the Go-Betweens, profess to owing him. Steve Earle went even further: ‘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’.

Van Zandt continued to live a reclusive life in a cabin in Tennessee up to his untimely death on New Year’s Day 1997, recording occasionally purely for the chance to ‘get the songs down for posterity’. Following his death his wife assembled a collection of outtakes and demo tapes. The result, with added session musicians, became A Far Cry From Dead and is an excellent memorial to a highly underrated songwriter. The 2004 film documentary Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt is also highly recommended.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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