Townes Van Zandt Dead at 52

The Dean of Texas Songwriters

by Lee Nichols

The Texas music community suffered a major blow on New Year's Day when Townes Van Zandt, the dean of Texas songwriters, passed away at his home in Smyrna, Tennessee, a few miles outside of Nashville. A heart attack, no doubt brought on by years of living the quintessential drifting troubadour life, ended the brilliant, Fort Worth-born musician's career at age 52. A driven artist, he entered that life willingly, leaving behind a wealthy oil family to model himself on Lightnin' Hopkins and Woody Guthrie.

It's difficult to put into words what his death means to Texas music. Despite his slight appearance, the poet with the dark, haunting eyes -- and soul to match -- towered over even the biggest giants of Lone Star songwriting. Since his 1968 debut, For the Sake of the Song, up until 1994's No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt created an immense body of work that would inspire Steve Earle to proclaim, "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." Even the most mainstream of country fans know Van Zandt, via Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's cover of his "Pancho & Lefty," which they took to Number One in 1983, while in the rock & roll world, Neil Young, Mudhoney, and the Cowboy Junkies all sang his praises.

Griff Luneburg, who booked Van Zandt for nearly 15 years at the Cactus Cafe, called the Chronicle from Nashville after Van Zandt's funeral, saying one could understand Van Zandt's importance by "who played at his service. They were all Texans and they were all influenced by Townes. Steve Earle played, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith played a Townes song, Emmylou Harris... well, she's not a Texan, but she was one of Townes' earliest supporters, cutting `Pancho & Lefty' the first time. He was a major influence on all those people."

Luneberg says Van Zandt came to consider the Cactus his home club, adding that "he only missed one gig in all those times. He was stranded on his houseboat on Lake Travis with a broken arm in '84. Nobody called, and Mickey White showed up -- his guitar player -- and everybody's waiting around, and we said, `Well, guess he's not showing up.' So Mickey played some Townes songs, and we played Live at the Old Quarter over the P.A., and everybody just stayed. Lyle Lovett showed up and got up there and played `Flying Shoes,' and then we played more Townes music on the stereo, and nobody asked for their money back.

"He was so gracious to people. He had no ego, and was really generous with his fans, he would go out and talk to them after the show. He never wanted the adulation. He appreciated it, but it wasn't that important to him. You know that Steve Earle quote? Townes was always kind of embarrassed by that. He said `Hey, Bob Dylan would never let Steve Earle get close to his coffee table.'"