With an understated voice that quietly overflowed with melancholy, humor, and insight, Townes Van Zandt was an icon of American songwriting. His songs would become hits for other artists, but substance abuse issues, problems with record labels, and general hard luck saw him spending the majority of his life as a cult figure at best, drifting across the world playing tiny rooms up until his early death at 52. Van Zandt was respected and admired by his contemporaries during his life, particularly for a hot streak of records he recorded in the early '70s that included High, Low and in Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. His legacy would grow after he was gone, with various books and documentary projects examining the tragic beauty that touched both his art and his life.
Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 7, 1944. His father was in the oil business and the family moved around a lot -- to Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, among other places -- which accounted for his sometimes vague answers to questions of where he "came from." He spent a couple years in a military academy and a bit more time in college in Colorado before dropping out to become a folksinger. (Van Zandt often returned to Colorado in subsequent years, spending entire summers, he said, alone in the mountains on horseback.)
He got his first paying gigs on the Houston folk circuit in the mid-'60s, playing clubs like Sand Mountain and the Old Quarter (where in 1973 he recorded one of his finest albums, Live at the Old Quarter, released four years later). During this time he met singers such as Guy Clark (who became a lifelong friend and frequent road partner), Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins, who had a large influence on Van Zandt's guitar playing in particular.
Another Texas songwriter, Mickey Newbury, saw Van Zandt in Houston one night and soon had him set up with a recording gig in Nashville (with Jack Clement producing). The sessions became Van Zandt's debut album, For the Sake of the Song, released in 1968 by Poppy Records. The next five years were the most prolific of Van Zandt's career, as Poppy released the albums Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included such gems as "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live's to Fly," "Tecumseh Valley," "Pancho and Lefty," and many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles.
In 1973, he recorded sessions that were intended to continue this prolific run. The songs were meant to be released as seventh album Seven Come Eleven, but arguments about unpaid invoices between his manager and the studio eventually resulted in the studio engineer never being compensated for his work and reacting by erasing the tapes. By this point, Van Zandt was well into a habit of regular heroin use and problematic drinking, and his productive times began slowing down.
Van Zandt moved to Nashville in 1976 at the urging of his new manager, John Lomax III. He signed a new deal with Tomato Records and in 1977 released Live at the Old Quarter, a double album -- and the first of several live recordings -- that contained many of his finest songs. In 1978, Tomato released Flyin' Shoes; the long list of players on that album included Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham.
Van Zandt didn't record again for nearly a decade, but he continued to tour. He moved back to Texas briefly, returning again to Nashville in the mid-'80s. During that decade, his songs began showing up as well-received cover versions by country and folk artists. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a number one country hit with "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983, and versions of his tunes also showed up in renditions by Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, and many others. In 1987, Van Zandt was back in business with his eighth studio album, At My Window, which came out on his new label, Sugar Hill. By this time, Van Zandt's voice had dropped to a lower register, but the weathered, somewhat road-weary edge to it was as pure and expressive as ever. Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure (recorded in a Nashville club in 1985), and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early '90s. In 1990, Van Zandt toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and he wrote a song for them, "Cowboy Junkies Lament," that appeared on the group's Black Eyed Man album (along with a song the Junkies wrote for him, "Townes Blues").
Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, on which Van Zandt covered songs by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, Sugar Hill released No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt's first studio album since 1987. Van Zandt recorded it in Ireland with a group of Irish musicians. Van Zandt sang every song but only played guitar on one.
A year and a half after the release of No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt died of a heart attack due to years of substance abuse on January 1, 1997; he was 52 years old. Posthumous releases included collections like Last Rights: The Life & Times of Townes Van Zandt and Anthology: 1968-1979, as well as albums like 1998's Abnormal and the following year's Far Cry from Dead, which featured previously unreleased songs.
A collection of Van Zandt demos dating from 1966, a full two years before his proper debut, was issued by the Houston imprint Compadre in April 2003 as In the Beginning.... In 2004, the Margaret Brown-directed documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt arrived. Using archival footage and new interviews with his friends, family, and peers, the film inspected the singer's short and turbulent life and the lasting impressions his music left behind. Throughout the 2000s, there would be a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt's music and enigmatic life, spurred on by film work such as Be Here to Love Me as well as several books and a slew of magazine articles and press coverage revisiting the impact of his songs and story. 2019 saw the release of more vault material in the form of Sky Blue. This spare collection of demos was recorded in 1973 when Van Zandt was drifting through Georgia and included two never-before-heard original songs as well as covers and originals that would see proper release on studio albums.
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