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The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

A deluge of Townes Van Zandt releases flood the market since his death on January 1, 1997. A bitter legal battles ensues over Van Zandt's prolific song catalogue. Various related projects recently became available such as Norah Jones' Handsome Band: Live 2004, Margaret Brown's great DVD: Be Here To Love Me, and Townes in Amsterdam, a 1991 live performance. The following article was first written in 1995 upon this writer's first meeting with the legendary Van Zant.
by James Calemine
April 2004
  
      “There’s no prettier sight than a town you left behind.”
                                -Townes Van Zandt
 
 Townes Van Zandt’s songs will long outlast his mortal coil of 52 years. Since his death Van Zandt’s music continues to reach a wider audience. Tales of his hard living, depression, gambling, collapsing onstage, and songwriting remain legendary. A poisonous legal battle rages between Van Zandt’s ex-wife and his longtime business partner over control of the songwriter’s legacy. A deluge of Van Zandt’s reissues, compilations, tributes, and live recordings have emerged, presenting both parties with a tangled legal web of lost finances while fans must decide what releases to purchase.
 
Born in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1944, Van Zandt came from a wealthy family. His great-grandfather served as the ambassador to France from the Republic of Texas before the revolution. His great grandfather was a founding father of the city of Ft. Worth. At the University of Texas, Townes Hall is named after his grandmother. Even his father was a wealthy oil man. Van Zandt’s parents institutionalized him where he was diagnosed a manic depressive and subjected to insulin shock treatments. He later told his wife Jeanene, “that when he came out, pretty much all of his memory was wiped out. Have you ever heard “Sanitarium Blues”? That’s the story in song.”

Inspired by Lightning Hopkins, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, he set out rambling across the country. Van Zandt, a definitive troubadour, played haunting folk, blues, and country music. Musicians such as Doc Watson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, and Emmylou Harris recorded Van Zandt’s songs. Some of his greatest albums include Live At The Old Quarter, Flyin’ Shoes, High, Low, and In Between, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and No Deeper Blue.
Your humble correspondent met Townes Van Zandt in July of 1995 for the first time at Blind Willie’s Blues Club in Atlanta. I’d been talking to the club owner, Eric King, about how I loved Van Zandt’s songs, and King suggested I go back and say hello. I hesitated, well aware of Van Zandt’s reputation, but after further encouragement, I walked through the dressing room door. The Man sat alone in the small dressing room.

     “Hello Townes. Eric said it was okay to come back and say hello.”
     “Oh, yeah? We’ll you better go get him…”
     “Sorry,” I began retreating to the door.
     “Hey man, come back here. I was kidding. I wanted to see how you’d react. Here…”
I stepped forward and took the flask from the man Steve Earle proclaimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter on earth, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say so.” After a hearty pull, I handed the flask back to him, stared into his dark eyes and asked,

     “Is that scaldcat?”
     “Vodka.”

I sat down in the metal folding chair next to him. Townes took my pocket notebook and began drawing pictures: one of a cactus near a desert highway that later became an album cover. Then he picked up his guitar and began strumming. He told me to never get discouraged as a writer, and that I was young and things would take time. When asked if people with far less talent enjoyed undeserved spoils ever bother him, Van Zandt revealed, “I never really wanted to be famous…like Mick Jagger or someone like that; I was content in playing the smaller places.”
 
We talked until they called him out to perform his first set. That night he dedicated “White Freight Liner Blues” to this writer. The following summer I met Van Zandt again at Blind Willie’s. Six months later he died, on the same day as Hank Williams, on January 1, 1997.
 
Currently, the condition of Van Zandt’s estate remains in turmoil. No clear resolution lingers in the near future. Last year, Van Zandt’s wife released In the Beginning, lost songs from his first Nashville recording sessions. On the other side of the bitter dispute, Harold and Kevin Eggers, recently released Acoustic Blues, a stark live compilation, including some of Van Zandt’s final songs recorded three weeks before his death,

The soul of his music resonates long after it’s heard, including lyrics from his old song “Lungs”:

           Salvation sat and crossed herself
           Called the Devil partner
           Wisdom burned upon the shelf
           Who’ll kill the raging cancer
           Seal the river at its mouth
           Take the water prisoner
           Fill the sky with screams and cries
           Bathed in fiery answers
 
Although his music catalogue hangs in legal lockdown, his act remains difficult to follow. Since his death, Townes Van Zandt’s songs now appear a far cry from dead.
 

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