Townes Van Zandt
John Townes Van Zandt I (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was an American singer-songwriter. Many of his songs, including "If I Needed You" and "To Live Is to Fly", are considered standards of their genre.
While alive, Van Zandt had a small and devoted fanbase, but he never had a successful album or single and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print. In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song "Pancho and Lefty," scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts. Despite achievements like these, the bulk of his life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins, and on friends' couches. Van Zandt was notorious for his drug addictions, alcoholism, and his tendency to tell tall tales. When young, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.
Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 from health problems stemming from years of substance abuse. The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt. During the decade, two books, a documentary film, and a number of magazine articles about the singer were created. Van Zandt's music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss Gillian Welch, Laura Marling, The Avett Brothers, and Devendra Banhart.
Townes Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a wealthy oil family. He was the third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt, a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas and second great-grandson of Khleber Miller Van Zandt, Confederate Major and one of the founders of Fort Worth. Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848. Townes' parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913–1966) and Dorothy Townes (1919-1983). He had two siblings, Bill and Donna. Harris was a corporate lawyer, and his career required the family to move several times during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the family transplanted from Fort Worth to Midland, Texas, for six months before moving to Billings, Montana.
At Christmas in 1956, Townes' father gave him a guitar, which he practiced while wandering the countryside. He would later tell an interviewer that "watching Elvis Presley's October 28, 1956, performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was the starting point for me becoming a guitar player... I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing. That made a big impression on me." In 1958 the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. Van Zandt would remember his time in Colorado fondly and would often visit it as an adult. He would also later refer to Colorado in the songs "My Proud Mountains" and "Colorado Girl."
During his youth, Townes was noted as a good student and active in team sports. In grade school, he received a high IQ score and his parents began grooming him to become a lawyer or senator. Fearing that his family would move again, he willingly decided to attend Shattuck School in Faribault, Minnesota. He received a score of 1170 when he took the SAT in January 1962. His family soon moved to Houston, Texas.
Van Zandt was accepted into the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1962. In the spring of his sophomore year, his parents flew to Boulder to bring Townes back to Houston, apparently worried about his binge drinking and episodes of depression. They admitted him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he was diagnosed with manic depression. He received three months of insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Afterwards, his mother's "biggest regret in life was that she had allowed that treatment to occur." In 1965 he was accepted into the University of Houston's pre-law program. He soon after attempted to join the Air Force, but was rejected due to a doctor's diagnosis that called him "an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life." He quit school around 1967, having been inspired by his singer-songwriter heroes to pursue a career in playing music.
In 1965 Van Zandt began playing regular shows at the Jester Lounge in Houston for $10 per night. There he met fellow musicians Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson. His repertoire consisted mostly of covers of songs written by Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and others, as well as original novelty songs like "Fraternity Blues." In 1966, right before his death, Harris Van Zandt had encouraged his son to stop playing covers and write his own songs. In 1968 Van Zandt met songwriter Mickey Newbury in a Houston coffee shop. Newbury persuaded Van Zandt to go to Nashville, where he was introduced by Newbury to the man who would become his longtime producer, "Cowboy" Jack Clement.
Among Van Zandt's major influences was Texas blues man Lightnin' Hopkins, whose songs were a constant part of his repertoire. He also cited Bob Dylan and Hank Williams as having had a major impact on his music. Van Zandt also cited such varied artists as Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, Blind Willie McTell, Tchaikovsky, and Jefferson Airplane as influences.
The years between 1968 and 1973 would prove to be Van Zandt's most prolific era. He released five albums during the time period: Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Among the tracks written for these albums were "To Live Is to Fly," "Pancho and Lefty", and "If I Needed You". These songs would eventually raise Van Zandt to near-legend status in American and European songwriting circles. In 1972 Van Zandt recorded tracks for an album with a working title of Seven Come Eleven, which would remain unreleased for many years due to a dispute between his manager Kevin Eggers and producer Jack Clement. Eggers either could not or refused to pay for the studio sessions, so Clement erased the master tapes. However, before they were deleted, Eggers sneaked into the studio and recorded rough mixes of the songs on to a cassette tape. Tracks from the aborted Seven Come Eleven debacle would later surface on The Nashville Sessions.
In 1975 Van Zandt was featured prominently in the documentary film Heartworn Highways with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Charlie Daniels and David Allan Coe. His segment of the film was shot at his run-down trailer home in Austin, Texas, where Van Zandt is shown drinking straight whiskey during the middle of the day, shooting and playing with guns, and performing the songs "Waitin' Around to Die" and "Pancho & Lefty." His soon-to-be second wife Cindy and dog Geraldine (a large, "keenly intelligent" half-wolf, half-husky) are also featured in the film.
In 1977 Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas was released. The album showcased Van Zandt solo at a 1973 concert before a small audience, and less elaborately produced than many of his early records. The album received positive reviews, and is considered by many to be among the best albums that the songwriter ever released. Several points on the album showcased his dry sense of humor, a feature that also showed in some of his songwriting.
In the mid-1970s, Van Zandt split from his longtime manager, Kevin Eggers. He found a new manager, John Lomax III (grandson of the famed folk music historian John Lomax), who set up a fan club for Van Zandt. Though the club was only advertised through small ads in the back of music magazines, Lomax immediately began to receive hundreds of impassioned letters from around the world written by people who felt touched by Van Zandt. Some of the letters described how his material often served as a crutch for those who were dealing with depression. In the summer of 1978, the singer fired Lomax and re-hired Eggers. He soon after signed to Egger's new label, Tomato Records. The following year, he recorded Flyin' Shoes; he would not release another album until 1987's At My Window.
Despite critical acclaim, Van Zandt remained a cult figure. He normally played small venues (often to crowds of fewer than fifty people) but began to move towards playing larger venues (and even made a handful of television appearances) during the 1990s. For much of the 1970s, he lived a reclusive life outside of Nashville in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack with no heat, plumbing or telephone, occasionally appearing in town to play shows. Steve Earle would later say that Van Zandt's primary concerns during this time period were planting morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey's radio show, and watching the sitcom Happy Days.
Several of Van Zandt's compositions were recorded by other artists, such as Emmylou Harris who, with Don Williams, had a No. 3 country hit in 1981 with "If I Needed You," and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, the pair taking "Pancho & Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Van Zandt had a small cameo appearance in the video for the song. In his later years he recorded less frequently, his voice and singing style altered in part because of his lifestyle and alcoholism. However, he continued writing songs, such as "Marie" and "The Hole."
According to Susanna Clark, Van Zandt turned down repeated invitations to write with Bob Dylan. Dylan was reportedly a "big fan" of Townes and claimed to have all of his records; Van Zandt admired Dylan's songs, but didn't care for his celebrity. The two first met during a chance encounter outside a costume shop in the South Congress district of Austin, Texas, on June 21, 1986. According to Johnny Guess, Dylan later arranged another meeting with the songwriter. The Drag in Austin was shut down due to Dylan being in town; Van Zandt drove his motorhome to the cordoned-off area, after which Dylan boarded the vehicle and requested to hear him play several songs.
In May and June 1990, he opened for The Cowboy Junkies during a two-month-long tour of the United States and Canada, which exposed him to a younger generation of fans. As a result, he wrote the song "Cowboy Junkies Lament" for the group, with a verse about each respective member of the band.
Van Zandt continued writing and performing through the 1990s, though his output slowed noticeably as time went on. He had enjoyed some sobriety during the early 1990s, but was actively abusing alcohol during the final years of his life. In 1994 he was admitted to the hospital to detox, during which time a doctor told Jeanene Van Zandt that trying to detox Townes again could potentially kill him. He grew increasingly frail during the mid-1990s, with some long-time friends noting that he seemed to have "withered."
In the spring of 1996, he was contacted by Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, who informed Van Zandt that he was interested in recording and releasing an album for him on the band's Ecstatic Peace label, funded by Geffen. Van Zandt agreed, and sessions were scheduled to begin in Memphis during late December of that year.
On December 19 or 20, Van Zandt fell down the concrete stairs outside his home, badly injuring his hip. After lying outside for an hour, he dragged himself inside and called his ex-wife Jeanene, who sent their friends Royann and Jim Calvin to check on him. He told the couple that he had sustained the injury while getting out of bed, and refused medical treatment. They took him back to their home, and he spent the Christmas week on their couch, unable to get up even to use the bathroom.
Determined to finish the album that he had scheduled to record with Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar, Van Zandt arrived at the Memphis studio being pushed in a wheelchair by road manager Harold Eggers. Shelley canceled the sessions due to the songwriter's erratic behavior and drunkenness. Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, but not before returning to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, eight days passed since the injury. On December 31, X-rays revealed that Van Zandt had an impacted left femoral neck fracture in his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed. Jeanene informed the surgeon that one of Townes' previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him. The medical staff tried to explain to her that detoxing a "late-term alcoholic" at home would be ill-advised, but he would have a better chance at recovering under hospital supervision. She did not heed these warnings, and instead checked Townes out of the hospital against medical advice. Understanding that he would most likely drink immediately after leaving the hospital, the physicians refused to prescribe him any painkillers.
By the time Van Zandt was checked out of the hospital early the next morning, he had begun to show signs of DTs. Jeanene rushed him to her car, where she gave him a flask of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Smyrna, Tennessee, and giving him alcohol, he was "lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone." Jim Calvin shared a marijuana joint with him, and he was also given about four Tylenol PM tablets.
While Jeanene was on the phone with Susanna Clark, their son Will noticed that Townes had stopped breathing and "looked dead." He alerted his mother, who attempted to perform CPR, "screaming his name between breaths." Townes Van Zandt died in the early morning hours of January 1, 1997, at the age of 52. His official cause of death was "natural" cardiac arrhythmia. He died forty-four years to the day after Hank Williams, one of his main songwriting influences.
Two services were held for Van Zandt: one in Texas, mostly attended by family; and another in a large Nashville church, attended by friends, acquaintances, and fans. Some of his ashes were placed underneath a headstone in the Van Zandt family plot at the Dido Cemetery in Dido, Texas, outside of Fort Worth.
Van Zandt married Fran Petters on August 26, 1965; a son, John Townes "J.T." Van Zandt II, was born to them on April 11, 1969, in Houston. The couple were divorced on January 16, 1970. She would later remarry, changing her last name to Lohr.
He moved in with Cindy Morgan in late 1974, and the two married in Nashville in September 1978. They became estranged for much of the early 1980s, and were divorced on February 10, 1983, in Travis County, Texas. They had no children together. She would later remarry, changing her last name to Lindgram.
Van Zandt's third and final marriage was to Jeanene Munsell (born February 21, 1957). They met on December 9, 1980 at a memorial for John Lennon. When the terminally-ill Dorothy Van Zandt learned that her son had impregnated Munsell, she told him, "You're going to do the right thing and honor that baby." He soon after divorced from his estranged second wife, and married Munsell on March 14, 1983; their first child, William Vincent, was born ten days later. Another child, Katie Belle, was born February 14, 1992. Van Zandt and Munsell were divorced on May 2, 1994. However, the two remained close until Townes' death, and Jeanene became an executor of the Estate of Townes Van Zandt.
Around the time of their April 1993 separation, Jeanene Van Zandt coaxed the musician into signing over the publishing rights of his entire back catalog and recording royalties to her and their children. Townes's only source of income after this point was money received from concert engagements, and even then Townes would frequently visit his ex-wife and "give her all the money in his pockets." Following their divorce in 1994, his only worldly possessions were listed as a 1989 GMC Truck with camper shell, a 1984 Honda Shadow Motorcycle and a 1983 Starwind 22-foot boat named Dorothy; he also retained sole ownership of his family inheritance of "ownership in oil lease and mineral rights."
At the time of his death, he had begun a long-distance relationship with a woman named Claudia Winterer from Darmstadt, Germany. The two met in November 1995 during a concert of his in Hanau. Van Zandt told several friends that he planned on marrying Winterer, but the two never became formally engaged.
Van Zandt struggled with heroin addiction and alcoholism throughout his adult life. At times he would become drunk on stage and forget the lyrics to his songs. At one point, his heroin habit was so intense that he offered Kevin Eggers the publishing rights to all of the songs on each of his first four albums for $20. At various points, Van Zandt's friends saw him shoot up not just heroin, but also cocaine, vodka, as well as a mixture of rum and Coke. On at least one occasion, he shot up heroin in the presence of his son J.T., who was only eight years old at the time.
As a result of Van Zandt's constant drinking, Harold Eggers, Kevin's brother, was hired on as his tour manager and 24-hour caretaker in 1976, a partnership that would last for the rest of the singer's life. Although the musician was many years older than he was, Eggers would later say that Van Zandt was his "first child."
Van Zandt's battle with addiction led him to be admitted to rehab almost a dozen times throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Medical records from his time in recovery centers show that he believed his drinking had become a problem around 1973, and by 1982 he was drinking at least a pint of vodka daily. Doctors notes reported: "He admits to hearing voices, mostly musical voices," and "Affect is blunted and mood is sad. Judgment and insight is impaired." At various points in his life, he was prescribed to take the antidepressant Zoloft and the mood stabilizer lithium. His final and longest period of sobriety during his adult life was a period of about a year in 1989 and 1990.
In 1994, Israeli singer David Broza performed Van Zandt during a Writers in the Round concert in Houston. When Van Zandt died, he left a shoe box full of unreleased poems and lyrics with a request that Broza set them to music. The resulting album was Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt.
In the years immediately following Van Zandt's death, his former manager and label owner Kevin Eggers issued fourteen albums of both new and previously unreleased material by the singer, all without consent of his estate (represented by Jeanene Van Zandt and his three children). Eggers also claimed a 50% interest in eighty of Van Zandt's songs. After nearly ten years of legal battles, the court sided with the estate, issuing "injunctive relief against Eggers, restraining him from reproducing or distributing any of Van Zandt's songs."
It was revealed through these proceedings that Van Zandt's annual income in the years before his death had climbed to over $100,000, thanks in large part to the royalties accrued from his songs being covered by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Cowboy Junkies, and other major music stars. After Van Zandt's death, Harold Eggers (Kevin's brother, Van Zandt's longtime road manager), whose job it was to make sure Townes' shows were recorded, released many video and audio recordings from hundreds of the songwriter's concerts he kept in his possession over a twenty-year period. At issue was whether Eggers or the estate should be in legal ownership of the tapes. An out-of-court settlement in 2006 "essentially granted the Van Zandts eventual control over all of Harold Eggers' mastered recordings (once certain undisclosed obligations were met), while Harold Eggers retained a 50% ownership interest in seven of the albums at issue and a royalty interest in the remaining recordings." However, both parties eventually found fault with the settlement and the issue was taken back to court.
On October 21, 2008, a number of Van Zandt's personal possessions were auctioned off at The Northside in Akron, Ohio, at a benefit for Wrecks Bell, Van Zandt's close friend and bandmate who was the inspiration for the song "Rex's Blues." Bell was half-owner of the nightclub in Houston where Townes recorded his album Live at the Old Quarter. He now owns the "new" Old Quarter in Galveston, which was uninsured and destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe reopened on December 11, 2008, after a series of benefit concerts held state-wide.
Van Zandt has been referred to as a cult musician and "a songwriter's songwriter." Musician Steve Earle, who met him in 1978 and considered Van Zandt a mentor, once called Van Zandt "the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." The quote was printed on a sticker featured on the packing of At My Window, much to Van Zandt's displeasure. In the years following, the quote was often cited by the press, much to Van Zandt and Earle's embarrassment; in 2009, Earle told the New York Times, "Did I ever believe that Townes was better than Bob Dylan? No." But he later concluded at the end of the same article that, "As a songwriter, you won’t find anybody better." Earle has championed the songwriter on a number of occasions: his eldest son, Justin Townes Earle, also a musician, is named after Van Zandt; Earle wrote the song "Fort Worth Blues" as a tribute to the singer in the late 1990s, and in 2009 released an album titled Townes, which featured all covers of Van Zandt songs.
Influential in the sub-genre referred to as outlaw country, his Texas-grounded impact stretched farther than country. He has been cited as a source of inspiration by such notable artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Guthrie Thomas, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Chelsea Wolfe, Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Cowboy Junkies, Vetiver, Guy Clark, Devendra Banhart, Norah Jones, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, The Be Good Tanyas and Jolie Holland, Josh Ritter, Gillian Welch, Garth Brooks, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon.
The band Shovels And Rope named their faithful dog Townes Van Zandt.
In 2012, Van Zandt was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In July 2012 Neurot Recordings released a three-way split CD in tribute to Van Zandt, featuring Neurosis singer/guitarists Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till and doom/stoner metal legend Scott "Wino" Weinrich.
Van Zandt's Roadsongs album version of The Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" was used during the final scene of the Coen Brothers' 1998 film, The Big Lebowski. The song was also included on the movie's soundtrack.
Since his death, Van Zandt's recordings have been licensed by his family for use in a number of films and television programs, including Stepmom, Six Feet Under, In Bruges, Crazy Heart, Leaves of Grass, Seven Psychopaths, Deadwood, Breaking Bad and True Detective.
In the film Country Strong, the Austin Statesman describes the character of Beau Hutton as "the next Townes Van Zandt."
The 2012 documentary film Low & Clear, which revolves around Van Zandt's son JT fly fishing for steelhead in British Columbia with his old fishing buddy Xenie, features the Townes van Zandt songs "Dollar Bill Blues" and "My Proud Mountains". The latter is performed by JT at the end of the film.
In 2006, the film Be Here To Love Me, chronicling the artist's life and musical career, was released in the United States. It was very well received, earning a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Georgia Christgau of the Village Voice called the documentary "sympathetic but frank." Eddie Cockrell of Variety called the film "a dignified and wistful look at the unusual life, difficult career and lasting influence" of Van Zandt.
A biography, titled To Live's To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt by John Kruth, was released in 2007. It received mixed reviews, with Publishers Weekly lamenting that Kruth's "efforts are diminished by oddly alternating first- and third-person narratives, awkward transitions and text cluttered with excessive quotes... more insight into why - rather than countless tales of how - would have made this bio a more worthwhile read."
In April 2008, the University of North Texas Press published Robert Earl Hardy's biography on the songwriter, titled A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt. The book featured the fruits of over eight years of research, including interviews with Mickey Newbury, Jack Clement, Guy and Susanna Clark, Mickey White, Rex Bell, Dan Rowland, Richard Dobson, John Lomax III, Van Zandt's brother and sister, cousins, and all three of his ex-wives, and many others. It has been described by Kirkus Reviews as a "poignant, clear and vivid portrait."
|Associated acts:||Lightnin' Hopkins, Mickey Newbury, Steve Earle, Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys, Guy Clark|
|Birth name:||John Townes Van Zandt I|
|Born:||(1944-03-07)March 7, 1944|
Fort Worth, Texas
|Died:||January 1, 1997(1997-01-01) (aged 52)|
|Labels:||Poppy, Tomato, Sugar Hill, TVZ, Fat Possum|
|Occupations:||Musician, singer-songwriter, producer, arranger|