John Townes Van Zandt (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), better known as Townes Van Zandt, was a critically acclaimed American songwriter and singer. Much of Van Zandt’s musical canon–songs such as "Pancho and Lefty", "For the Sake of the Song", "Tecumseh Valley", "Rex's Blues", and "To Live is to Fly"–are widely considered masterpieces of American folk music. His musical style is often described as melancholy in sound and delivery with rich and poetic lyrics. During his early years, Van Zandt was widely respected for his guitar playing and fingerpicking ability.
In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song "Pancho and Lefty", reaching number one on the Billboard country music chart. Much of Van Zandt’s life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms and backwoods cabins. For much of the 1970s, he lived in a simple shack without electricity or a phone.
His influence has been cited by countless artists across multiple genres, and his music has been recorded or performed by numerous artists, including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, The Counting Crows, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen Jr., Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Wade Bowen, Gillian Welch, Pat Green and Natalie Maines.
He suffered from a series of drug addictions, alcoholism, and was given a psychiatric diagnosis of bipolar disorder. When he was young, the now-discredited insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.
Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 from cardiac arrythmia caused by health problems stemming from years of substance abuse. A revival of interest in Van Zandt occurred in the 2000s. During the decade, two books, a documentary film (Be Here to Love Me), and numerous magazine articles about the singer were written.
Born in Fort Worth into a wealthy family, Van Zandt was a third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt (a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas) and a second great-nephew of Khleber Miller Van Zandt (a major in the Confederate army and one of the founders of Fort Worth). Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848.
Townes's parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913–1966) and Dorothy Townes (1919–1983). He had two siblings, Bill and Donna (1941–2011). 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's 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 later refer to Colorado in "My Proud Mountains", "Colorado Girl", and "Snowin' on Raton". Townes was 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 the 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.
The University of Colorado at Boulder accepted Van Zandt as a student in 1962. In the spring of his second 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 claimed her "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. Soon after he attempted to join the Air Force, but was rejected because of a doctor's diagnosis that labelled 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.
Van Zandt was addicted to heroin and alcohol 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, his 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." His battles 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.
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 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.
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, Rowland S. Howard, Michael Weston King, Josh Ritter, Gillian Welch, Garth Brooks, Simon Joyner, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon, Laura Marling, Andrew Adkins and Frank Turner. Folk musician Shakey Graves has credited his fast-paced, rhythmic style of finger picked guitar playing partially to Van Zandt's influence.
In 1994, Israeli singer David Broza performed with 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 2012, Van Zandt was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In July 2012, Neurot Recordings released a three-way split album in tribute to Van Zandt, featuring Neurosis singer/guitarists Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till and doom/stoner metal legend Scott "Wino" Weinrich.
On June 18, 2015, Van Zandt was inducted into the second year's ceremony of the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with Asleep at the Wheel, Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark and Flaco Jimenez. Gillian Welch inducted Van Zandt by telling stories about how he had come to her early gigs in Nashville and how he had bolstered her confidence in writing sad songs.