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13 March 2024

The cult of Townes Van Zandt

Hardship haunted his short life, but a celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday reveals the country troubadour’s dedicated following.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 20 September 1977 Townes Van Zandt played the first of two nights at the Lone Star Cafe, then New York City’s premier country music venue. By this point the Texas-born musician had recorded six albums, made over the course of just four years. The previous year, his manager, John Lomax III (the grandson of John and son of Alan, both famed folk ethnomusicologists), had placed a small classified ad for a Van Zandt fan club in an issue of Rolling Stone, and within a month had received several hundred adoring responses, including from fans who said his ballads had saved them from suicide, or comforted them after losing loved ones.

Reviewing the Lone Star concert in the New York Times, John Rockwell described Van Zandt’s original material as “self-conscious in its metaphors, and some of it is simply prosaic and maudlin”. While Van Zandt played “guitar very nimbly”, Rockwell found his singing to be “hesitant and unsure, above all in matters of pitch”. Even worse, his stage presence was “punctuated by some of the lamest jokes this side of the Catskills”. “All of which might work to his advantage for those few who already admire him extravagantly,” Rockwell concluded. “It’s just that his gifts as a performer are not likely to win him a very wide audience in the first place.”

A cynic might say that Rockwell’s verdict was an accurate summary of the singer-songwriter’s career. Van Zandt, who would have been 80 years old this month, died aged 52 never having released an album on a major label nor having had a significant hit of his own. But his fans – those who already admired him “extravagantly” during his lifetime, and the many more who have discovered his songs since – understand Van Zandt as a master of melancholia, and an artist whose legacy lives on less in his performances but in the craft of his songwriting. His influence is indisputable. “Pancho and Lefty”, which tells the story of a Mexican bandit’s downfall, was covered by Emmylou Harris on her number one 1977 album Luxury Liner, and then again in 1983 by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who took it to the top of the country charts. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Laura Marling have performed many more of his lilting, heartfelt songs.

One recent Saturday evening at Moth Club in east London a group of musicians gathered together to play Van Zandt’s self-titled 1969 album in full. Sharing lead vocals across the ten album tracks were the Irish singer Brigid Mae Power and the British folk musician Robin Gillan. Gillan, he told the crowd before a divine rendition of “Colorado Girl”, was born five years after the release of Van Zandt’s debut record, making him 51. He was the oldest member of the six-piece band and – looking out over a crowd almost entirely made up of 20- and 30-something gig goers – one of the oldest in the room. The music of Townes Van Zandt, this audience made clear, lives on.

John Townes Van Zandt was born on 7 March 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas, into a wealthy oil family that had been prominent in the area for four generations. His father, Harris Williams Van Zandt, was a corporate lawyer. The family moved often during the 1950s and 1960s, and Van Zandt grew up between Texas, Montana and Colorado.

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When he was 12 years old, his older sister and her girlfriends were watching Elvis Presley performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he noticed they were screaming at the television in adulation. He asked his father for a guitar for Christmas. “Seeing Elvis… was the starting point for me becoming a guitar player,” he later said. “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.” Van Zandt’s musical career would look very different.

In 1962 he went to the University of Colorado. He considered the state his home, as he would later sing on “My Proud Mountains” (1969), a mournful tune, even by Van Zandt’s standards. By that time he was “a long, long way from Denver/With a long way to go”. The singer had shown signs of mental illness as a teenager – it is alleged he once deliberately fell from a fourth-floor window, “just to see what it felt like”. During his second year at university his parents, fearing that he was binge-drinking and depressed, flew him home to Texas. There they enrolled him in a mental institution. He was diagnosed with manic depression and for three months received insulin-shock treatment that erased much of his long-term memory.

In 1965 Van Zandt began playing regular shows in Houston, mostly comprising covers. Soon he began to write and perform his own songs. His style was inspired by the finger-picking of the Texas country-blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, from whom he “realised you could play separate notes”, not just chords, he later said. And he found lyrical inspiration in The Times They Are a-Changin’-era Bob Dylan: “He was using a regular guitar and regular words and putting them together and coming out with songs that meant something.”

The “hesitant and unsure” voice that Rockwell heard in 1977 was Van Zandt’s reedy baritone, strained – even in his earliest recordings – by the hardships of which he sang. On the title track that opens his debut album, For the Sake of the Song (1968), the poetic, sombre quality of Van Zandt’s music is evident:

Oh, why does she sing
Her sad songs for me? I’m not the one
To tenderly bring
Her soft sympathy, I’ve just begun
To see my way clear and it’s plain
If I stop I will fall
I can lay down a tear for her pain
Just a tear and that’s all

He often falters at the beginning of a line, with a shakiness that resolves itself by the end of the phrase, by which time his voice is full – if never rich. While the voice is distinctly his, this record was a shock for those who had seen the singer perform in dive bars. Produced by Jack Clement and Jim Malloy, the album drenches Van Zandt in echo, and features not just acoustic guitar, but recorder, organ and harpsichord. The effect is distracting, and even today sounds overproduced. Preferring the simpler versions, Van Zandt later re-recorded many of these songs.

By 1972 he had released five more albums, making this period by far his most prolific. On his self-titled 1969 record, released when Van Zandt was just 25, his distinct brand of melancholia already feels age-old. At Moth Club the band drew out the blues in Van Zandt’s writing, particularly on “I’ll Be Here in the Morning”, which featured an extended pedal steel solo, and on the mining ballad “Lungs”, which was heavy on banjo and slide guitar. “Here’s the fun one,” Power laughed before the band launched into “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel”, for which the crowd sang along to the chorus: “Won’t you come and get me when/You’re sure that you don’t need me then?/I’ll stand outside your window/And proudly call your name.” Gillan, Power and their band didn’t overstate the sentimentality of the occasion, offering little mid-set chat. They knew that Van Zandt’s songs stand for themselves, and so they let them.

The musician named his sixth album, released in 1972, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Despite the grandly morbid title, the record includes moments of brightness (the choir-backed chorus of “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya”), and undeniable kitsch (the corny string section on “Snow Don’t Fall” and the novelty percussion on “Honky Tonkin’”). Kevin Eggers, its executive producer, has said the title was an effort to find Van Zandt’s music publicity and commercial success, a move that resembled the “Paul is dead” Beatles hoax. But the musician’s biographer John Kruth has posited the title was inspired by a night in 1972 when the singer “died twice in one night” on the way to the hospital after overdosing on heroin.

Throughout his adult life Van Zandt was addicted to substances and alcohol. He lived in a trailer, found friends among the outlaws of the southern states, and gambled away the little money his music made. After his death from heart failure in 1997, an obituary described how he “became so poor that he ate dog food and slept on concert stages”.

In the country music documentary Heartworn Highways, filmed in 1975 and 1976, Van Zandt appears in a cowboy hat next to “Uncle” Seymour Washington, who was born in 1896 and here acts as a wise Texan elder. Washington describes the time-worn traditions of the South, and the importance of drinking whiskey in moderation. He then watches on as Van Zandt plays “Waitin’ Around to Die”. “It’s the first song I ever wrote,” the musician says, before singing:

Sometimes, I don’t know where this dirty road istaking me
Sometimes, I don’t even know the reason why
But I guess I keep a-gamblin’, lots of booze, and lots of ramblin’
Well, it’s easier than just a-waitin’ around to die

Before he reaches the end of this sorrowful song, Washington is weeping. Van Zandt could not heed his advice. His truthful, desperate songs made that all too clear.  

[See also: Robbie Robertson’s sounds of America]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul