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January 3, 1997

Townes Van Zandt, 52, Country and Folk Songwriter


Townes Van Zandt, an influential songwriter whose dark and tragic country and folk ballads mirrored his own life, died Wednesday at his home in Smyrna, Texas. He was 52.

The cause was apparently a heart attack, said Beverly Paul, a spokeswoman for Sugar Hill, the music label for which he recorded. Van Zandt broke his hip last week and had just returned home after undergoing surgery, she said.

Van Zandt's powerfully written songs and spare, haunting delivery influenced many country, folk and rock performers, including Neil Young, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, the Cowboy Junkies and the grunge band Mudhoney. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard topped the country charts in 1983 with a version of Van Zandt's song "Pancho and Lefty."

But Van Zandt never achieved mainstream success himself, in part because of his proclivity for living out his songs of drinking, gambling, rambling and depression.

"All that I've said/All that I've done/Means nothing to me," he sang on his most recent album, "No Deeper Blue." "I'd as soon be dead/All of this world be forgotten."

Van Zandt was born March 7, 1944, in Fort Worth, into a wealthy oil family that had been prominent in Texas for four generations. Van Zandt County in West Texas was named for his forebears.

He spent his childhood moving around the country with his family, and many of his teen-age years in a mental institution, diagnosed as a manic-depressive with schizophrenic tendencies.

Influenced by the songs of Hank Williams, the guitar-playing of Lightnin' Hopkins and the lyrics of Bob Dylan, as well as Elvis Presley's success, he moved to Houston in the early 1960s to try a career as a musician. Eventually he became so poor that he ate dog food and slept on concert stages. He attempted to join the Air Force during the Vietnam War but was rejected because of his psychiatric history.

In 1968, Van Zandt moved to Nashville to record his first album, "For the Sake of the Song," with the producer and song writer Jack Clement, best known for his work with Johnny Cash. The album mixed humorous barroom songs with the tales of poverty, desperation and bleakness ("Waiting Round to Die," "Tecumseh Valley") that would make him, along with his friend Guy Clark, a beacon to a generation of up-and-coming songwriters.

He has since recorded nearly a dozen records and toured virtually nonstop, driven, his friends said, by inner demons that neither he nor they could account for.

Sometimes his performances, like his last show in New York City, at the Bottom Line in 1995, movingly mixed minor-key tear-jerkers with a fatalistic sense of humor. Sometimes his shows were meandering, ending with him collapsing onstage.

At the time of his death, Van Zandt was working on a boxed set of his music. He had assembled a group of well-known musicians including Willie Nelson and Freddy Fender to record new versions of his songs. Ms. Paul of Sugar Hill Records said it was uncertain whether those projects would be completed.

He is survived by a sister, Donna Spence of Boulder, Colo.; a brother, Bill, of Houston; a daughter, Katie Bell, and a son, William Vincent, of Smyrna, both from his third marriage; and a son from his second marriage, John Townes, of Corpus Christi, Texas.

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