Townes Van Zandt is not a new artist. Matter of fact, he’s no longer with us; he passed away January 1, 1997. But, I’d venture a guess that most of you have never heard of him…and I think we ought to rectify that.
Those of you who know me personally know that I adore Townes. Well, I suppose more specifically, I adore his music…I adore his intelligence…I adore the young, promising idea of Townes. My heart hurts, however, for the painful life he lived, the self-destructive path he trod, and the loss of him much too soon.
Thank God we have his music. If you haven’t heard it, I think you’re missing out on something wonderful. The five to ten Google alerts I still get about Townes each day are proof positive that his music endures. I suppose he’d be classified as “Folk/Alt Country”, but for me, his lyrics transcend genre.
In addition to the usual playlist below, I’ve added a video of clips and medley of songs that I compiled…and they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the depth and beauty of his lyrics. His voice and singing style were not his strengths, it was his melodies and lyrics and beautiful guitar playing that made him great.
Many other artists have covered his songs and had hits (Pancho and Lefty, anyone?), yet Townes never really enjoyed fame, and died without much money. But…he’s a legend. A true “Texas Troubadour”, he began playing the club circuit in Houston in the mid ’60s with friends Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson. He was a tortured genius whose lyrics gave face to his pain, and whose drink and drug binging perpetuated it. The documentaries “Heartworn Highway” and “Be Here to Love Me” give glimpses of a beautiful, terrible life.
Believe it or not, he was born into wealth, in a family whose name can be traced back in Texas for generations. (Van Zandt County is named for them.) He attended college, and some say he was being groomed for an eventual bid for the Texas Governorship…which he gave up in favor of his music. He almost surely suffered from some form of mental illness – specifically manic depression, and in his early years was subjected to damaging electroshock therapy. Even this, and his subsequent years of substance abuse could not dim the brilliance that was this tortured genius.
The poetry in his lyrics is sometimes dark, sometimes depressing, sometimes hopeless…but, as someone who has battled depression myself, I have to tell you that for many, Townes’ intimate knowledge and expression of that darkness can be a balm on the soul.
Aw, shit – you see for yourself, if you’ve got some time to kill. Not everyone “gets” Townes. But, if you do – you’ll be touched deeply and hooked for life.