Townes Van Zandt: An appreciation

3 minute read
Inspired by Lightnin' Hopkins. (Photo by Michael Schwarz, via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Inspired by Lightnin' Hopkins. (Photo by Michael Schwarz, via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Born into a Texas family of lawyers, politicians, and oilmen, Townes Van Zandt left school at the age of 23 to pursue his true love, music. Just before he died, his father encouraged him to write his own music rather than simply covering the work of other performers, somewhat unexpected advice given the background of the family.

In his lifetime, he never had a Billboard hit — not even a single — but this may be because the successful billboard artist is half-musician, at most, and half-circus acrobat, at least. Van Zandt was all artistry, and if he wasn’t popular, he nonetheless influenced many other musicians who were. “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world,” Steve Earle once said, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Like many artists, he sacrificed comforts, living in squalor and adopting the dive bar as his concert hall, playing to a small but devoted audience. Hints of everything from Hank Williams Sr. to early Springsteen ring out in his music, and Van Zandt himself even listed Tchaikovsky as one of his influences. His sonorous bass-baritone voice surely outshone Dylan’s unhewn tones — though you couldn’t say that in front of him — and he picked the guitar with virtuosity, the dexterous fingers of Lightnin' Hopkins having been his inspiration.

Van Zandt’s melodies are pleasing but not always memorable. There usually isn’t a beat or lilt that sends the music “straight to the feet,” as Arnold Schoenberg would say. It is introspection without slouching toward sentimentality. His lyrics soothe the soul, leading me to wonder whether he was well read in philosophy or just an uncommonly bright sage.

Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song. And who do I think I am to decide that she’s wrong?”

Art for art’s sake, described more beautifully.

“I’ll miss the system here

The bottom’s low

And the treble’s clear

But it don’t pay to think too much

On things you leave behind.”

Peace with the transience of life. The Greeks couldn’t have said it better.

As it too often happens, Van Zandt’s music surged in popularity only after his death. Though somewhat flush near the end of his life from royalties for covers performed by the likes of Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, he lived out his days in obscurity. He drowned his demons in drink, which impaired his health, and he was snatched from life at the tender age of 52 on January 1, 1997 — 44 years to the day after Hank Williams Sr. died.

It might be tempting to feel sorry for Townes Van Zandt, but I don’t get the impression that he felt sorry for himself.

“To live is to fly,” he sang,

“Low and high

So shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes.”

Those are the words of a hopeful muse, one worthy of the most exalted turntables.

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