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Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt's music doesn't jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. Whether he was singing a quiet, introspective country-folk song or a driving, hungry blues, Van Zandt's lyrics and melodies were filled with the kind of haunting truth and beauty that you knew instinctively. His music came straight from his soul by way of a kind heart, an honest mind, and a keen ear for the gentle blend of words and melody. He could bring you down to a place so sad that you felt like you were scraping bottom, but just as quickly he could lift your spirits and make you smile at the sparkle of a summer morning or a loved one's eyes -- or raise a chuckle with a quick and funny talking blues. The magic of his songs is that they never leave you alone.

Despite his warm, dusty-sweet voice, as a singer Van Zandt never had anything resembling a hit in his nearly 30-year recording career -- he had a hard enough time simply keeping his records in print. Nonetheless, he was widely respected and admired as one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation. The long list of singers who've covered his songs includes Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (who had a number one country hit with "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983), Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Hoyt Axton, Bobby Bare, the Tindersticks, and the Cowboy Junkies.

Van Zandt was a Texan by birth and a traveler by nature. His father was in the oil business, and the family moved around a lot -- Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, among other places -- which accounted for his sometimes vague answers to questions of where he "came from." Van Zandt spent a couple years in a military academy and a bit more time in college in Colorado before dropping out to become a folksinger. (Van Zandt often returned to Colorado in subsequent years, spending entire summers, he said, alone in the mountains on horseback.)

Van Zandt moved to Houston and got his first paying gigs on the folk music circuit there in the mid-'60s. He played clubs like Sand Mountain and the Old Quarter (where in 1973 he recorded one of his finest albums, Live at the Old Quarter, released four years later), and he met singers such as Guy Clark (who became a lifelong friend and frequent road partner), Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins, who had a large influence on Van Zandt's guitar playing in particular.

Another Texas songwriter, Mickey Newbury, saw Van Zandt in Houston one night and soon had him set up with a recording gig in Nashville (with Jack Clement producing). The sessions became Van Zandt's debut album, For the Sake of the Song, released in 1968 by Poppy Records. The next five years were the most prolific of Van Zandt's career, as Poppy released the albums Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included such gems as "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live's to Fly," "Tecumseh Valley," "Pancho and Lefty," and many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles.

Van Zandt moved to Nashville in 1976 at the urging of his new manager, John Lomax III. He signed a new deal with Tomato Records and in 1977 released Live at the Old Quarter, a double album -- and the first of several live recordings -- that contained many of his finest songs. In 1978 Tomato released Flyin' Shoes; the long list of players on that album included Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham.

Van Zandt didn't record again for nearly a decade, but he continued to tour. He moved back to Texas briefly, returning again to Nashville in the mid-'80s. During the early '80s, both "If I Needed You" and "Pancho and Lefty" became country radio hits. In 1987, Van Zandt was back in business with his eighth studio album, At My Window, which came out on his new label, Sugar Hill. By this time, Van Zandt's voice had dropped to a lower register, but the weathered, somewhat road-weary edge to it was as pure and expressive as ever. Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure (recorded in a Nashville club in 1985), and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early '90s. In 1990, Van Zandt toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and he wrote a song for them, "Cowboy Junkies Lament," which appeared on the group's Black Eyed Man album (along with a song the Junkies wrote for him, "Townes Blues").

Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, on which Van Zandt covered songs by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, Sugar Hill released No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt's first studio album since 1987. Van Zandt recorded it in Ireland with a group of Irish musicians. Van Zandt sang every song but only played guitar on one.

A year and a half after the release of No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt died unexpectedly on January 1, 1997; he was 52 years old. Posthumous releases included collections like Last Rights: The Life & Times of Townes Van Zandt and Anthology: 1968-1979, as well as albums like 1998's Abnormal and the following year's Far Cry From Dead, which featured previously unreleased songs.

The early 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt's music and enigmatic life; three book projects and two films entered production, and features on the musician appeared in such tastemaking rags as Mojo. But perhaps the greatest gem was the discovery of a collection of Van Zandt demos dating from 1966, a full two years before his proper debut. The ten previously unreleased recordings were issued by the Houston imprint Compadre in April 2003 as In the Beginning.... Included in the release were liner notes written by John Lomax III. ~ Kurt Wolff, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography


Track List: Texas Troubadour

Disc 1
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Disc 4


I've been listening to all the Townes I can get my ears on.Ha Ha! He's one of a kind. Top listening
RIP Townes!
hector_ramir e z 2 9 1 9 9 0
Legends never die.
Long live TVZ! I'll see you soon brother
bigot of the year! its all in a days prejudice..
Not a word about the bottle?
Love the lyrics!
dont read this because it actually works. You will get kissed on the nearest possible Friday by the love of your life. tomorrow will be the best day of your life. however if you do not post this comment to at least 3 songs you will die in 2 days. now you've started reading this so don't stop. this is so scary put this on at least 5 songs in at least 143 minutes when if done press f6 and your lovers name will appear on the screen in big letters this is scary cause it actually works
He was pretty rad, but Dave bazan holds the number one spot for me. But I love some Townes van Zandt
a simple, poetic spirit-gone way too soon- but then he planned it that way.
Arguably, there could be songwriters as good as Townes Van Zandt. Guy Clark e.g. But there ain't nobody better!
smokin' a joint and drinking wine behind the old KPFT studio in Houston a long time ago. wonderful memory.
I can't believe they didn't include Steve Earles name in the bio at all.
He was Steve Earle's mentor. They were both from Texas. Steve Earle gave his first son the middle name Townes. Both are greats in their own right!
A true poet!
lyrics are wrong on A Song For
Surprised to see no mention of Steve Earle. He did a great album covering Townes tunes and is a very successful singer songwriter.
truly a man of brilliance.T h e musicians musician.
kennethmabre y
damn i miss towns . r i p
alas the perfect station!!!
Thanks to Mark Davis for introducing me to Townes van Zandt. If you like TvZ check out the music of Mark Davis, singer/songw r i t e r from Edmonton, here on Pandora...
Always knew of TVZ -- his writing and such -- but have only really listened to him lately. A simple, touching voice and, of course, great lyrics. Sad he passed so young.
bob t

rode with him in the mountains. got struck by lightning once. always kept riding until we ran out of bourbon. great guy. always the champion of the underdog (of which i thought I was at the time.
Rake is one of the most introspectiv e pieces of music ever written.
I tell ya, I absolutely love Townes' music. I never had the pleasure to see him live but must have 40 or 50 live recordings. His bad jokes are priceless. I think one of the things that separates great songwriters from the rest is how their songs translate when covered by other great artists. Nobody can really do a song quite like Townes but Steve Earle gave it a hell of a whirl with his album Townes, great stuff. However, my absolute favorite Townes cover is Nanci Griffith doing Tecumseh Valley.
I had an old Beer Joint on the outskirts of Austin Texas called Breezy's Pizza & Beer Garden & got to have the pleasure of Townes Van Zandt playing there.He was such an artist, a poet and a kind sensitive man....Breez y ' s was only as crowded when Gary P Nunn played or occasionally Rusty Weir...Towne s lives on in my heart and would have loved to hear him develop and grow and feel like he did....Hal Sapadin
Bless him again! Not sure there even are similar artists (Who excepting Ramblin' Jack & Woodie would think of spending summers wandering on his horse alone, camping in Colorado...a w a y from people? Even the other 2 wanderers took trains, I suppose.) Willie/Arlo may be similar, but in their busses, blessed with $ (fine!). He is missed, a great poet/singer/ s o n g w r i t e r , consumed by alcohol (common for geniuses tortured at some level). In short, he's GREAT. Keep ridin', Barb,.+Write & sing!
If I get to heaven first, he's mine! Danielle,LOL , I sure hope they have Guitars in heaven so i can always hear him sing
passin the fire from guthrie to dylan keep it up
Marry me in heaven Townes!
creolelorrai n e d u l e c h e
arrete pas las musique....h e will be remembered as one of the best of all americana music
townes, sweet townes, he is missed
I miss The Old Quarter and acts that performed there. Mostly I miss Townes and his songs.
What a contribution he was!!
Townes, the best song writer, ever.
There was another musician named Van Zandt? 60's mysterious figure...rin g any bells?
love him
love ya texasboy...g o d d r i v e n alien produced texas......t o m m y t . iraan texas..1960. . .
jennyandjenn y
I saw a documentary on Townes that was pretty heart-breaki n g . He received shock therapy as a young man(best known treatment at the time for his psych issues) and lost all memory of his past. Kept writing songs though.
I'm torn between who i think is a better song writer... townes or dylan
I knew him, I miss him. Can't think of enough positive emotional adjectives. Another Texan that died way too young.
Incredible singer-song writer. Touches your soul with his stories
This IS AMERICA... I Hope the World Can See
lauriehamilt o n 4 2 0
freakin awesome TVZ! Like him as much today as ever
Townes's writing transcends time. He writes about humanity, not particular situations. As sad, and as lonely today as it was in the sixties. You know it is fantastic if you can identify emotionaly with a song that was written more than ten years before you were born.
Townes is simply the best. He influenced everyone I love to listen to from Guy Clark to Lyle Lovett to Steve Earle and more. Listening to Townes lets me relax, cry, laugh and sing along. WOW!
the beauty of music is that is timeless, quality is just that. he is quality and spans generations of song writers and musicians.
My thoughts feelings and words could only give Steve Earle another sincere Thankyou. Steve Pochintesta
Incredible folk singer. Best I've heard. Always has ear candy and no worms. I'm Colorado bound! Wish I could have heard him live. Bless him.
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