The Great, Late Townes Van Zandt

He was a reckless drunk and a hopeless idealist, but he was also the best Texas songwriter of our time. Just ask Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and countless others who knew him well.
Townes Van Zandt strumming in the mid-seventies.
Photograph by Al Clayton

Townes Van Zandt perched on a chair in the little nightclub in Berlin and sang for an hour and a half. It was October 1990. He was sober, which was a surprise; he was soulful and funny, which wasn’t. The adoring audience sat transfixed through his entire set: the precise playing, the weary singing, the apt covers like “Fraulein,” the country chestnut. The Germans loved him. They knew his lyrics by heart, though most of his jokes sailed over their heads.

Two and a half years later, Townes played at La Zona Rosa in Austin. He was so drunk he couldn’t finish a single song during the entire abbreviated set. Embarrassed fans started filing out after fifteen minutes as he fumbled with chords and slurred his words into gibberish. Some stuck it out to the end, feeling guilty for watching, but—well, you never knew what might happen when Townes Van Zandt was onstage. After the show, he collapsed.

Townes was a holy mess, his life a mix of the sublime and the horrific. By the time he died of a heart attack at 52 on New Year’s Day, 1997, the Fort Worth native had written a large batch of enduring songs and become the subject of colorful tales—many of them even true. They will be retold on March 28 when Austin City Limits airs “A Celebration of Townes Van Zandt,” during which Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and others reminisce about their friend and play his songs. At the taping of the show on December 7, Nelson and Harris did “Pancho and Lefty,” which he and Merle Haggard took to number one on the country charts in 1983. Harris and Earle sang “If I Needed You,” which she and Don Williams took to number three in 1981. Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley” and Lovett “Flyin’ Shoes,” as each had been doing in concert for years. Griffith called Townes “one of our greatest native folk songwriters.”

Before the show, Susanna Clark, who was one of Townes’s best friends, recalled how her husband, Guy, and Rodney Crowell reacted to seeing a TV interview with Griffith after he died. Griffith had said, “If there weren’t a Townes Van Zandt, there would be no Nanci Griffith.” Hearing that, Crowell said, “There’d be no Rodney Crowell.” Guy said, “There’d be no Guy Clark.” You could add Lovett, Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely to that list, as well as hundreds of wannabes with acoustic guitars and whiskey visions learning to play “Pancho and Lefty,” analyzing every twist and shade in its melody and lyrics and dreaming of the open road. For better and worse, Townes was the most influential Texas songwriter of his time.

And yet he remains today what he was all his wild, heartbreaking life: a cult artist honored by peers and ardent fans but largely unknown in the mainstream. He never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century. He sang about how precious it was to be alive yet spent a good deal of his life killing himself with drugs and alcohol. A kind of death cult grew up around him fed by stories and myth—some of his own making, some of his fans’, many of whom saw romance in his self-destruction. When he died on January 1, 1997—the same day his hero Hank Williams had died in 1953—the most surprising thing was that he had lived so long.

“Everything is not enough . . .”

John Townes Van Zandt , born on March 7, 1944, was groomed to be an entirely different kind of Texas legend. His great-great-grandfather Isaac Van Zandt was an original son of the Republic, appointed chargé d’affaires to the United States by Sam Houston in 1842. Isaac died while running for governor five years later; Van Zandt County, about fifty miles east of Dallas, is named for him. Succeeding generations of Van Zandts were civic leaders who built up Fort Worth from a dusty cowtown to a transportation hub of the New West. Townes got his name from John Charles Townes, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, for whom Townes Hall, the main building at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, is named.

When Townes was nine, he saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and asked his father for a guitar for Christmas. After promising to learn “Fraulein” as his first song, he got one. Although the family moved around a lot, his middle-class childhood was happy: He wrestled and played baseball and football, and he loved practical jokes. “He was a happy-go-lucky, funny kid,” says his older sister, Donna Spence. And he was smart. “Townes was a genius,” says his first wife, Fran Lohr. “They couldn’t test him because his IQ was so high— way above 140.” For his last two years of high school, his parents sent him to the exclusive Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, where, he later said, he got “a real serious private prep school ivy-covered education.” He loved Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and wrote many poems of his own.

“Townes was basically primped to be a Texas senator or lawyer,” says John Townes Van Zandt II, his son by his marriage to Fran, and for a while he played along. He enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1962, wrote poetry, played the guitar for fun, and listened to records by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Hank Williams. He was a good student who was popular with professors. Townes met Fran, and

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