Townes Van Zandt - Texas Songwriter & Performer
Townes Van Zandt wrote songs that often told stories of prostitutes, bums, gamblers, and people you'd meet anywhere. His work was poetic, prolific, and poignant.
He was a restless man and a driven artist who toured almost constantly, playing clubs all over Texas and the US, like Blind Willie's in Atlanta and the Bottom Line in New York. He reveled in a life of dissipation, as one of his early songs proclaimed: "gambling and rambling was easier than waiting around to die."
On stage, Townes had a world-weary demeanor and mournful voice. His bouts with depression were well-known. He was born into a privileged Fort Worth family, yet said his teenage years were full of torment. As an adult, he tried family life (there were three marriages and three children), but the allure of life on the road was irresistible.
Despite tireless touring, composing and recording, big-time success eluded Van Zandt. In all, he put out more than 10 albums on the Poppy and Tomato labels, but none rose above cult status. His major claim to fame was the ballad "Pancho and Lefty," which Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made a hit in 1983. Emmy Lou Harris also had success with that tune.
His lyrics were full of poetic images and melancholy. Sometimes his work reflected the honky tonkin' country influence of Hank Williams, and his bottleneck slide guitar echoed the legendary Houston bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. Many of his songs were full of brooding, bleakness and tragedy.
Yet his distinctive wit and sense of irony made him an original. In one song, he sang about a lonely woman who had German mustard between her teeth. In "Heavenly Houseboat Blues," he lamented building a houseboat in heaven only to have it -- blub, blub, blub -- sink!
Townes would no doubt have been pleasantly surprised that he garnered a major obituary (with photo) in The New York Times in which pop music critic Neil Strauss wrote that his "powerfully written songs and spare, haunting delivery influenced many country, folk and rock performers" and that he had virtually become a "beacon to a generation of songwriters." That assessment is a perfect tribute.
"I have a lot of heavy-duty songs," he said in a 1996 Associated Press interview. "I've always thought if you took enough of them or any particular one seriously enough--if you took it seriously enough, you'd be in trouble."
In the song "A Song For," Van Zandt wrote:
"There's nowhere left in this world where to go. My arms, my legs they're a tremblin'
"Thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky. Not even worth the rememberin'."
He did not try to mold his talents for mass market success, preferring to emulate the bluesmen he grew up admiring, especially Lightnin' Hopkins.
A whole generation of Texas songwriters have been deeply influenced by Van Zandt's distinctive style. He is mentioned in the same breath with legendary lyricists like Tom Waits, Dylan, and Mickey Newberry. Latter-day artists like Steve Earle, Hal Ketchum, Robert Earl Keen, the Cowboy Junkies and Rodney Crowell all cite the influence of Van Zandt.
On the liner notes for Van Zandt's 1987 album "At My Window," Earle wrote: "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."
Wrecks Bell, owner of Galveston's Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, played bass and shared plenty of whiskey and road trips with Townes in days gone by. Every year on January 1st, Bell hosts a wake to commemorate the anniversary of the songwriter's January 1, 1997 death.