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

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