Townes van Zandt (March 7, 1944 - January 1, 1997) was a country music songwriter and performer who is largely overlooked, due in part to his own reluctance to promote his music and fit the rigidly established country-singer persona in any way other than the self-destructive. He emerged in the late sixties among the renaissance in country music that brought songwriters like Kris Kristofferson to fame and he gained some renown in the early seventies alongside other artists like John Prine and Steve Goodman, each of whom regularly played on Austin City Limits.
He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of an oil executive and travelled throughout his youth around Texas and Colorado but even his own accounts of his upbringing are vague and conflicting. Van Zandt is considered a pioneer along with Gram Parsons in the sub-genre referred to as Alternative country, which, while not too clearly defined, connotes a style of country with greater lyrical emphasis and a (relatively) greater incorporation of more diverse forms of music. His influences stretched farther than country music but were still deeply rooted in Texas. Perhaps one of his greatest influences was Texas Blues man Lightnin' Hopkins whose songs were a constant part of his repertoire.
Although generally shy and reserved, his performances featured a dry humor that was an integral part of his songwriting. Most of his earliest songs were light-hearted and humorous, but by his first releases on Tomato Records had more seriously harnessed his talent for dark and bittersweet love songs and ballads, like 'For the Sake of the Song' and 'Tecumseh Valley.' His output was brilliant but at his own pace, which limited his renown to a few but appreciative small Texas bars. That was all he really seemed to aspire to, and his performances (which were of varied quality, like so many performers) were best in this setting. Tomato Records released a 2 disc live album from the Old Quarter in Houston, Texas that captured him in such a performance, and includes his most popular & definitive songs like 'Lungs,' 'For the Sake of the Song', 'Tecumseh Valley', 'To Live Is To Fly', and his most famous (thanks to numerous covers, most notably by Willie Nelson), 'Pancho & Lefty.'
He continued writing and performing at his own pace through the nineties until his death in 1997.
He has influenced most artists that would (reluctantly) be grouped as "Alternative country" such as Guy Clark and Steve Earle (with whom he played in the 90s) and Lucinda Williams, who dedicates her apt and tragic song '2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten' to van Zandt when performing it, along with the long list of self-destructive artists who similarly succumbed to their own dependencies.
"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.
Townes Van Zandt is the great great great grandchild of Isaac Van Zandt, a prominient leader of the Republic of Texas and early state of Texas.