Townes Van Zandt; 1944-1997: Troubled Texas troubadour laid his soul bare in song

By Steve Morse, Globe Staff, 01/03/97

Townes Van Zandt was the tormented genius of the Texas song renaissance - a troubadour whose sad, faraway eyes and vignettes of loneliness laid bare his soul in ways that modern Nashville cowboys rarely do. Mr. Van Zandt died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack at his home in Smyrna, Tenn. He was 52.

He left behind such classic country songs as ``Pancho and Lefty'' (a No. 1 hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard) and ``If I Needed You,'' a hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams.

Mr. Van Zandt's young daughter, Katie Belle, ``came running in [Wednesday] and said, `Daddy's having a fight with his heart,''' said a spokeswoman yesterday for Van Zandt's label, Sugar Hill Records. ``But he was already gone.''

Mr. Van Zandt had many less literal, but no less scarring, fights with his heart through the years. He was diagnosed with manic depression and spent time in a mental hospital as a teen-ager, and he grappled with alcohol abuse for years. He once even passed out in a Dempsey dumpster on the road, yet he was always uncannily able to convey his pain through music.

He was the father of the Texas folk/country movement of the past two decades - a guru to numerous artists such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith (who recorded his ``Tecumseh Valley''), Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore (who once picked up Mr. Van Zandt hitchhiking), Guy Clark and Steve Earle.

Earle, writing the liner notes to Mr. Van Zandt's 1987 album ``At My Window,'' noted that ``Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.''

Mr. Van Zandt, son of a statesmen-filled Texas family who had an ancestor that drafted the Texas Constitution, became a friend of Janis Joplin and wrote a tribute to her, ``To Live is to Fly.'' He studied guitar with bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins, revered country singer Hank Williams and was the first to combine such rootsy sounds with those of contemporary folk poets like Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk. And he was always modest about doing so: ``Two words can be poetry,'' Mr. Van Zandt said last year. ``And if you add one note on a guitar, you've got a song. It's not nearly as difficult as everybody thinks.''

This story ran on page d16 of the Boston Globe on 01/03/97.

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