He has been called “the best writer in the country genre.” His admirers include Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle. Townes Van Zandt was, in short, “a songwriter’s songwriter.”
His two best-known works are “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You,” but his other songs have been recorded by more than 50 different artists. And Van Zandt’s lifetime as a spellbinding, enchanting traveling troubadour familiarized thousands with his art.
Townes Van Zandt was born in 1944 as the son of a distinguished Texas family. He saw Elvis Presley on TV in 1956 and was transfixed. Van Zandt’s father gave him a guitar that Christmas, and he became obsessed with music.
As a teenager, he was diagnosed with manic depression and underwent shock treatments. His memories of his childhood were erased, but not his love of music.
As a college student, Van Zandt locked himself in his room and listened to records over and over again. They were by artists such as Dylan, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Hank Williams. When he emerged, Townes Van Zandt was a fully formed guitarist, singer and entertainer. He forsook his privileged background and embarked on a tour of bars, listening rooms and coffeehouses that was to last for the rest of his life.
He travelled to Nashville in the late 1960s. Producer/songwriter Jack Clement, who had heard him performing in Houston, began to record Townes Van Zandt in Music City in 1967.
The songwriter’s Clement-recorded “Tecumseh Valley” earned him a recording contract in 1968. During the next decade, Van Zandt recorded eight LPs that became cult favorites.
Mickey Newbury took him under his wing. The two co-wrote “Mister Can’t You See,” a pop success for Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1972.
But other successes were not forthcoming. Van Zandt returned to Texas and his life as an itinerant singer-songwriter. Meanwhile, Steve Young, Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, New Grass Revival, Guy Clark and more began to record and champion his songs in the 1970s.
Harris teamed with Don Williams to turn Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” into a major country hit in 1981. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took “Pancho and Lefty” to the top of the charts in 1983.
Van Zandt moved back to Nashville and resumed recording in 1987. Seven more albums by him appeared during the next decade. The songwriter was a substance abuser throughout most of his adult life and died at age 52 on New Year’s Day 1997. Since then, 14 posthumous albums have appeared. Two books, a documentary film and four tribute CDs have also saluted him.