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Published January , 1997, in The Free Lance–Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt dead at 52


Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Singer Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the country hits “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty”

Townes Van Zandt
and gained a cult following for his blues-inspired recordings about life’s losers, has died. He was 52.

Van Zandt had returned to his Smyrna home to recuperate from hip surgery last week. He died Wednesday night of an apparent heart attack with friends and family nearby.

His young daughter, Katie Belle, “came running in and said, ‘Daddy’s having a fight with his heart,’” said Beverly Paul, a Sugar Hill Records spokeswoman. “They rushed into the room and Townes was already gone.”

The gaunt Texas native began releasing albums in 1968, becoming one of a hard-living group of folk troubadours in that state that included Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Mickey Newberry.

While he was the son of a prominent oil family, his songs often told stories of prostitutes, bums, gamblers and other losers. But he said he wasn’t always so somber as the desperate people who lived in his lyrics.

“I have a lot of heavy-duty songs,” he said in a 1996 Associated Press interview. “I’ve always thought if you took enough of them or any particular one seriously enough—if you took it seriously enough, you’d be in trouble.”

In the song “A Song For,” Van Zandt wrote,

“There’s nowhere left in this world where to go

“My arms, my legs they’re a tremblin’

“Thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky

“Not even worth the rememberin’.”

Don Williams and Emmylou Harris had a hit with “If I Needed You,” which reached No. 3 on the country charts in 1982, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard teamed up the following year on a version of “Pancho and Lefty” that reached No. 1. Ms. Harris also recorded “Pancho and Lefty.”

Van Zandt himself never had a hit as a singer, but released a series of albums on independent record labels like Tomato, Poppy and Sugar Hill. His most recent was “No Deeper Blue,” in 1994.

He did not try to mold his talents for mass market success, preferring to emulate the bluesmen he grew up admiring, especially Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Latter-day artists like Steve Earle, Hal Ketchum, Robert Earl Keen, the Cowboy Junkies and Rodney Crowell all cited the influence of Van Zandt.

On the liner notes for Van Zandt’s 1987 album “At My Window,” Earle wrote: “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.”

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© 1997 The Free Lance–Star, Fredericksburg, Va.