When all the world seems mad and upsidedown, truth is obscured and I find my heart turning bitter, I know it’s time to seek out some morsel of art, beauty, or goodness. This week I found my hearth in the rusty rhythms and stories of a folk legend too many have never heard of- the late Townes Van Zandt.
His voice is the dusk of Americana. Singer of bandit lullabies, lonesome trails, and wistful loves, Townes Van Zandt’s mournful melodies could uncover that place in your soul buried deep in the soil. His voice was raw as chickory and smooth as a river stone. His simple, yet intricate picking style could both chill you to the bone and melt the superficial until left with nothing but pure, dripping truth. He could bring you to the most tragic, somber of places and pull you back out with a simple tune of the wind.
“And now you wear your skin like iron…”
Born March 7th, 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas he epitomized the journey of the pained, struggling artist. Many of his songs were made famous by big names, such as Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and even the Rolling Stones. However, Townes himself wasn’t keen on being in the limelight. He was haunted by heroin and alcoholism, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, yet disavowed money and fame. He lived in a ramshackle cabin with no electricity, plumbing or telephone service for many years in the 1970s. He made money on the road playing dive bars and staying in seedy motels and cabins in the woods.
Despite being in a circle of famous musicians, Townes never signed onto a record label or developed large commercial following, mostly by choice. He was a legend in his own right, never needing to prove it or get monetary validation of his genius. Although plagued by tumultuous relationships and mental illness, the purity, vulnerability and soul with which he sang is unmatched by any era’s standards.
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” -Steve Earle
Rather than vanish into obscurity, Townes’ legend is like an aging whiskey, developing in complexity over time. In a world torn apart by greed, machines, and out of control egos, we would all do well to listen to the sweet, dusty lullabies of Americana’s folk antihero-Townes Van Vandt.
Five Song Introduction to Townes Van Zandt
- “Poncho & Lefty”
- “If I Needed You”
- “Tecumseh Valley”
- “To Live is to Fly”
- “Our Mother the Mountain”