by Stewart Francke
Born in 1945 in Fort Worth, TX; married; wife's name, Jeanene.
Attended University of Colorado, 1966-67.
Released first album, For the Sake of the Song, Poppy, 1968; began playing coffeehouse circuit, 1970; song "Poncho & Lefty" recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, 1977; moved to Nashville, 1985; signed with Sugar Hill records, 1986; toured with Guy Clark, 1988.
Record company--Sugar Hill, P. O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717.
Townes Van Zandt is one of a handful of Texas-born singer-songwriters who can only be described as modern day troubadours. While Van Zandt has written country hits for others, he has remained largely an obscure figure, endlessly traveling the coffeehouse/juke joint circuit. He declared in the New York Times in 1989, "It looks like I'm forever going to be a folk singer." Van Zandt's compositions include such hits as "Poncho & Lefty" for Willie Nelson and "If I Needed You" for Emmylou Harris. Although he remains unknown to a mainstream audience, he has had an enormous influence on other songwriters. Critical praise is equally fawning; the word "legend" pops up often in regard to Van Zandt.
Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1945, the son of a prominent oil man. He described his nomadic childhood in an interview with Contemporary Musicians (CM) in 1992, "I lived in Fort Worth till I was 8, Midland till 9, Billings, Montana, till 12, Boulder, Colorado till 14, Chicago till 15 ... Houston till I was 21. And then I started traveling."
Van Zandt began playing guitar at age 15, turned on by the blues and early records by folk great Bob Dylan. The young musician began pursuing songwriting more seriously while attending the University of Colorado; by 1968 he was signed to the small Poppy label. The first artists to record his songs were Doc and Steve Watson, both of whom were attracted by the plaintive quality in Van Zandt's work.
Van Zandt came to be considered one of Texas's best kept secrets, playing the Old Quarter coffeehouse in Houston. In 1968 he released his first album, For the Sake of the Song, which was followed by a record each year for the next five years: Our Mother the Mountain (1969), Townes Van Zandt (1970), Delta Man Blues (1971), High, Low and in Between (1972), and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (1973). A double performance album, Live at the Old Quarter, was released in 1977. All are now considered cult classics.
Van Zandt met his wife, Jeanene, on December 9, 1980, and she took on responsibility for much of his booking and publishing business. As the 1980s faded and acoustic music again became valued, Van Zandt was cited by several new acts as a seminal influence. After releasing At My Window in 1987 and Live and Obscure in 1990, Van Zandt was asked to open up for the Cowboy Junkies on their 1991 U.S. tour.
As critic Robert Palmer wrote in the New York Times, "Figures like Townes Van Zandt remind us that the wandering bard, that American archetype, is still very much with us--and his music will live long after the voices that declare it in or out of fashion have been stilled or forgotten." Or, as Van Zandt's friend Guy Clark simply stated, "Townes was the biggest single influence on my writing. Working around a poet like him, you learn not to throw away a phrase for a rhyme or a word for a pattern. You learn to keep your work clean."
Van Zandt was possibly the first Texas songwriter to embody the qualities that came to be attributed to anyone in the city of Austin with a guitar. He was the first folk artist to put forth a tough existential attitude, although it was softened by the wry sentimentality of his songs.
Van Zandt is aware of the praise he has received from younger artists such as Earle and Lyle Lovett, yet he remains modest. "It's very flattering, very nice," he told the Detroit Free Press in 1992. "The fact that I decided to do this, and made a little mark, is very nice. It's not something I think of day to day or minute to minute. It's mostly B.S. ?bull shit, but very pleasant B.S."
West Texas has produced a great number of valued musicians: Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Michelle Shocked, Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Earle, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, and Nanci Griffith. Van Zandt offered CM an explanation for the wealth of Texas talent: "There is a freer attitude in Texas. And there is not a lot to do. You can work in a gas station, herd cows or play guitar. A lot of people would play guitar. Guy Clark says there is something in the water; I think a meteor hit Lubbock [Texas] in the Paleolithic Age."
Influenced by the extemporaneous style of bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins, Van Zandt writes lengthy songs rife with cinematic storytelling. He sings in a dry, cracked voice, a voice as lived in as his jeans. His "image," if such a show business buzzword can even be applied to Van Zandt, is that of the frail drifter tossed around by life. Van Zandt's most respected songs--"Poncho and Lefty" and "To Live Is to Fly"--deal with the bittersweet grip of love or the temporal nature of life. His simple voice and unassuming song style also suggests a comparison with Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams--songwriters who used detailed stories and country/folk song forms to humorously reach large truths.
"I'm trying to define the relationship between man and the universe," Van Zandt told CM, describing the purpose behind his songwriting. "Often it's between man and man, or man and woman, or man and the cosmos. Whatever song comes through the door I'm happy with. ... I'm lucky just to play the guitar and sing."
Van Zandt does not just like to travel, he needs to move. He often travels with his wife and two children. "I love the hum of the wheels," Van Zandt told CM. "I really consider myself very fortunate. I started when I didn't have a family. It was easier then--we could play for $20 a night and still have enough left for the week. We could audition in a club on Wednesday and play on Friday. Now it seems guys go to a garage or basement and then send tapes to record companies and MTV. We used to pick up our guitar and suitcase, hit the highway and go to Oklahoma City."
The figures who people Van Zandt's songs--a woman in a wind-blown calico dress, dust bowl ranchers, pugilists, drunks, and outlaws--are straight out of real life, although usually from a less sophisticated time. Yet the famous West Texas mysticism is there, deep in Van Zandt's songs and stories. For every moment of realism, such as the elegant "Loretta," there is the ring of imagination, the rush of the West Texas wind.
In 1994 Van Zandt released Roadsongs, a collection of cover tunes, on the Sugar Hill label The songs were recorded "over a number of years in joints all over America," the singer observed, according to Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. "Van Zandt's blues are so casually authentic," noted Palmer, "the issue of authenticity doesn't even come up." The reviewer further declared in his critique of Roadsongs, "Whatever ?Van Zandt's? singing, there's a singular vision, an indelible individuality."
As the godfather of the early 1990s songwriter boom, Van Zandt, in his interview with CM, offered daunting advice for young artists. "You've got to get a guitar, or harmonica, or piano--a guitar and harmonica are easiest to carry--and blow everything off. I mean everything. Blow off family, love, security, comfort, money, food--everything, and see what happens. Certain truths will become self-evident ... or you'll starve to death. It deters a lot of people. But that's the only way to do it."
For the Sake of the Song, Poppy, 1968, reissued, Tomato 1989. Our Mother the Mountain, Poppy, 1969, reissued, Tomato 1989. The Great Tomato Blues Package, Tomato, 1989. At My Window, Sugar Hill, 1986. Roadsongs, Sugar Hill, 1994. The Nashville Sessions, Tomato/Rhino, 1994. First Album, Tomato/Rhino, 1994. High, Low and in Between, Rhino, 1994. Flyin' Shoes, Rhino, 1994.
Books Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, Straight Arrow, 1992. Periodicals Billboard, June 16, 1990. Boston Rock, June 1993. Detroit Free Press, December 11, 1992. Folk Roots, October 1989. LaCasagram, December 1992. Nashville Scene, October 12, 1988. New York Times, June 7, 1987. Rolling Stone, June 30, 1994.
CM interviewed Van Zandt on December 7, 1992.
~~ Stewart Francke