TVZ obituary from the British Guardian
As posted to the about-townes mail list
about-townes: Obituary from The Guardian
Sat, 01 Mar 1997 17:49:09 +0000
The following obituary is stolen from The Guardian, a leading British daily newspaper.
Keeping quiet for the sake of a song
OTHER musicians revered Texan song writer Townes Van Zandt who has died of a heart attack aged 52,
but he made real efforts, helped by a sluggish work-rate and a small-scale touring schedule to remain
thoroughly obscure to the public.
Van Zandt's low visibility seems all the more extraordinary considering the number of successful cover
versions of his songs. There was the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard duet on Pancho And Lefty, Emylou
Harris and Don Gibson's hit version of If I Needed You. Nanci Griffith's recording of Tecumseh Valley.
Other people who recorded or performed his work included Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Mudhoney and The
Tindersticks, and last year Nashville singer Jonell Mosser released a Van Zandt album, Around Townes.
Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth, Texas into a prominent oil family - Van Zandt County and Texas
University's Townes Hall were named after them - and it was a Van Zandt who drafted the constitution
of Texas. As a child, Townes frequently ran away from home in rebellion and was treated for
schizophrenia as a teenager. "Fifty per cent of the fan mail I get is from mental hospitals," Townes
commented 30 years later.
In the early 1960s, he ended up in Houston but was so unsuccessful as a musician that, having slept on
deserted concert stages and lived on dog food, he volunteered for the United States ASir Force but was
rejected because of his psychiatric history.
In 1968, he moved to Nashville and recorded his first album For The Sake of The Song, with Johnny
Cash's producer Jack Clement. The disc mixed rowdy bar-room tunes with grimmer material like
Tecumseh Valley and Waiting Round to Die. Themes of depression, dislocation and fatalism, leavened
by deadpan humour figured prominently in his songwriting. The dark, haunted quality of his songs
frequently reminded listeners of Hank Williams, whom. Van Zandt revered and believed that he would
follow to an early grave. Bob Dylan's lyrics and the guitar-playing of bluesman Lightning Hopkins were
was further inspirations, while he was not the first Texan to discover the inspirational qualities of the
Lone Star state.
Van Zandt became an icon to a generation of hard-living fellow Texans, including Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff
Walker and Mickey Newbury. His subsequent albums included Our Mother The Mountain, Townes Van
Zandt, Delta Momma Blues and At The Window, each of them adding to the reputation of a man whose
songs grew deeper and more insightful.
Perhaps he tempted fate by calling a 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Even as his music
influenced newer Texan artists, notably Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, his hard-drinking
lifestyle was taking its toll. His live performances ranged from the sublime to the stumblingly
incompetent, with his last British appearance at London's Borderline in December definitely in the latter
But his death coincided with an upsurge of interest in his work. There were plans for him to make an
album for Geffen Records featuring a hand formed by Sonic Youth's drummer Steve Shelley, while a
live album called Rear View Mirror was scheduled for March. Paradoxically Van Zandt was also
planning to make a disc of other people's songs called Highway Kind. "I think of Townes as the greatest
folk song writer that my native state of Texas ever gave birth to," said Nanci Griffith. "Some of us song
writers are just lyricists, but he was definitely a poet."
He is survived by, his ex-wife, Jeanene, two sons and a daughter.
Townes Van Zandt, musician,
born March 7, 1944; died January 1,1997