John Townes Van Zandt (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was a country-folk music singer-songwriter, performer, and poet. Throughout his career he was widely admired by fellow songwriters, particularly in the folk and country genres, but greater fame eluded him, in part because of his unconventional vocal style and in part because of his erratic personal behavior. Many of his songs, including "Pancho and Lefty," "If I Needed You," and "To Live's to Fly," have been recorded by other notable performers and are considered standards of their genre.
Van Zandt's songs have been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Hoyt Axton, Tindersticks, Devendra Banhart, Norah Jones, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, The Be Good Tanyas, and the Dixie Chicks.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas to an oil-wealthy family, Van Zandt traveled during his youth around Texas and Colorado. His parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913 - 1966) and Dorothy Townes (? - 1983). Townes was the third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt, a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas and one of the founders of Fort Worth. Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848.
He was given a guitar by his father for Christmas in 1956, which Townes practiced while wandering the countryside. He would later tell an interviewer that watching "Elvis Presley 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 grade school, it was recognized that Van Zandt had a "near genius IQ" and was soon being groomed for Texas governorship; he dropped out of college in the 1960s after being inspired by singer-songwriters and deciding to pursue a singing career. He was diagnosed with manic-depression in his early twenties, and was treated with insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. His lack of memory and his mental condition is considered by some to be a contributor to both the passion and sense of isolation evident in his songs.
One of his major influences was Texas blues man Lightnin' Hopkins, whose songs were a constant part of his repertoire. He also cited early Bob Dylan, as well as the music of Hank Williams, as having had a major impact on his music. Van Zandt also cited such various musicians as Guy Clark, Muddy Waters, Mozart, The Rolling Stones, Blind Willie McTell, Tchaikovsky, Richard Dobson, and Jefferson Airplane as influences.
In 1968, Van Zandt met songwriter Mickey Newbury in a Houston coffee shop. It was Newbury who persuaded Van Zandt to go to Nashville, where he was introduced by Newbury to the man who would become his producer, "Cowboy" Jack Clement.
In John Kruth's biography on the singer, To Live's to Fly, it is described how Van Zandt maintained a flippant attitude towards the recording process, with songwriting being his primary concern. Throughout the seventies Van Zandt earned the reputation as (in Kris Kristofferson's words) "a songwriter's songwriter" with songs like "Flying Shoes," "Waiting Around To Die," "Mr. Gold & Mr. Mudd" and "Nothing But The Rain" leaving his contemporaries galvanized. Some of his songs also focused on his addictions, such as "Nothin'" and "Kathleen."
In 1972, Van Zandt recorded tracks for an album with a working title of Seven Come Eleven, which would remain unreleased 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 snuck in to the studio and taped 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, and David Allen Coe. Van Zandt's material often served as a crutch for many fans who were dealing with depression and suicidal tendencies and his management often received mail revealing the powerful impact his music had made on their lives. 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. Despite critical acclaim, Van Zandt remained a cult figure in the same manner that other unconventional recording artists of the time did. He normally played small venues (often to crowds of fewer than 50 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 in a cabin in Tennessee, with no indoor plumbing or phone, appearing only occasionally to play shows. Steve Earle would later say that Van Zandt's primary concerns during this time period were planting morning glories and watching the sitcom Happy Days.
Generally shy and reserved, Van Zandt struggled with a heroin addiction and alcoholism throughout his adult life. At times he would become drunk on stage and forget the lyrics to his songs. Some critics believe his alcoholism inhibited his performances, whereas others believe it made his lyrical expression more genuine. His performances showcased his dry sense of humor, a feature that also showed in some of his songwriting.
Several of Van Zandt's compositions were recorded by other artists, such as Emmylou Harris who, with Don Williams, had a #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 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 still produced impressive songs, such as "Marie" and "The Hole".
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.
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.
He moved in with Cindy Morgan in late 1974, and the two married in Nashville in September 1978. They were divorced on February 10, 1983 in Travis County, Texas. They had no children together.
Van Zandt's third and final marriage was to Jeanene Munsell (born February 21, 1957). They met on December 9, 1980 and moved in together the same day. They were married on March 14, 1983 and their first child, William Vincent, was born ten days later. Another child, Katie Bell, 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.
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: "If anyone ever tries to dry this man out again, he will die."
In December 1996, he took part in a series of recording sessions coordinated by Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley. On December 23, Van Zandt fell and badly injured his hip. Determined to finish the album, he refused treatment and showed up to the studio being pushed in a wheelchair. It wasn't until after Shelley canceled the sessions on account of the songwriter's erratic behavior and drunkenness that Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, and even then not before returning home to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, a full eight days passed since he had been hurt. On December 31, X-rays revealed that he had indeed broken his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed on Van Zandt. Jeanene informed the surgeon that Townes was an alcoholic and that detoxing at the hospital could kill him, so it was agreed that the medical team would simply "get him stable" and his ex-wife would take him home.
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 bottle of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium that had begun to set in. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Mount Juliet, Tennessee and giving him alcohol, he was "lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone." After she and their two children had settled in to go to sleep, 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, most likely due to a massive blood clot in the lungs or heart attack. It is notable that he died 44 years to the date after Hank Williams, one of his main songwriting influences.
His ashes were placed underneath a headstone in the Van Zandt family plot at the Dido Cemetery in Dido, Texas, outside of Fort Worth.
In the years immediately following Van Zandt's death, his former manager and label owner Kevin Eggers issued 14 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 80 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, and other major music stars.
Another issue was that of Harold Eggers' (Kevin's brother, Van Zandt's longtime road manager and business partner) having had video- and audio-recorded hundreds of the songwriter's concerts over a 20 year period, and 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.
Van Zandt has been referred to as a cult musician and "a songwriter's songwriter". Friend of Van Zandt and musician Steve Earle once called him "the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
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 artists as The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marah, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Nanci Griffith, Cowboy Junkies, Chris Edwards, Vetiver and Meat Puppets. Steve Earle paid his own homage to Van Zandt by writing "Fort Worth Blues" as a memorial to the night of his death. Earle's eldest son, Justin Townes Earle, also a musician, is named after him.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' hugely successful 2007 album Raising Sand includes a cover version of the Van Zandt song "Nothin'".
A live version of Van Zandt's cover 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.
In the 2008 film "In Bruges" with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the song "St. John The Gambler" was used.
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 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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 Publisher's 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."