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Townes Van Zandt Biography

Home > Music > V > Van Zandt, Townes > Biography

Birth Name: John Townes Van Zandt
Born: 1944/03/07
Birth Place: Fort Worth, Texas
Died: 1997/01/01
Years Active: 1965-1996
Genres: Blues, Folk, Country

Townes Van Zandt was born on March 7, 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas and was a country-folk music singer, songwriter, performer and poet. Van Zandt attracted a small and loyal following throughout his life that was almost cult-like in their devotion. Van Zandt was known for his notorious drug use and spent most of his career, due to his drug use playing dive bars and living in cheap hotels. When he was a teenage, Van Zandt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and treated at the time with insulin shock therapy, which damaged much of his long-term memory.

Van Zandt saw Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, and the performance profoundly changed his life. His father brought him a guitar for Christmas that year and the 12 year old Van Zandt began to perfect his art. Despite his love for music, Van Zandt was a bright student academically and his parents influenced him to pursue law as a career. Van Zandt went to college to study law but began to suffer from depressive episodes during college. By 1967 he dropped out of school to pursue a career in music.

While attending the University of Houston, Van Zandt had been playing regular shows at the Jester Lounge, where he met fellow musicians Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson. 1968 brought songwriter Mickey Newbury into Van Zandt's life, who encouraged him to move to Nashville with him, where he met record producer, “Cowboy” Jack Clement.

Van Zandt's music up to that point had been strongly influenced by diverse artists such as Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Mozart, The Rolling Stones, Tchaikovsky and Jefferson Airplane. Throughout his career, Van Zandt paid little to no attention to the recording process and liked to play live. It was his producer Jack Clement who would push Van Zandt to record his music and write his lyrics down on paper.

From 1968 to 1973 Van Zandt produced five studio albums during his most prolific era. The albums include, 1969’s “Our Mother the Mountain” and “Townes Van Zandt,” 1971’s “Delta Momma Blues,” and 1972’s “High, Low and in Between,” and “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.” The albums spawned a number of successful songs, including “For the Sake of the Song,” “To Live is to Fly,” Tecumseh Valley,” and “Pancho and Lefty.”

1972 saw Van Zandt record tracks for the album “Seven Come Eleven,” which would remain unreleased for many years due to disputes Van Zandt was having with his manager Kevin Eggers. In 1975 Van Zandt was featured in the documentary film, “Heartworn Highways,” with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and David Allen Coe. Van Zandt signed to his ex-manger Egger's new record label, Tomato Records in 1978.

A year later he released “Flyin' Shoes” and did not release another album until “At My Window” arrived in 1987. Van Zandt went through long periods of reclusive living where he shut himself off from the world and drank heavily. He re-emerged during the early 1990s to play small, local venues.

As the 1990s progressed, Van Zandt entered a phase of sobriety and began to perform more. However, in 1994 he was admitted to the hospital to detox. In 1996, Van Zandt was approached by Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, who was interested in working with him on an album. Van Zandt agreed, and sessions were scheduled to begin when a fall that resulted in Van Zandt having a badly injured hip delayed the process. Determined to complete the album, Van Zandt arrived in Memphis only for Shelley to cancel the sessions due to the Van Zandt's erratic behavior and drunkenness. On January 1, 1997, at the age of 52, Van Zandt died. His official cause of death was natural cardiac arrhythmia.