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Obituary: Townes Van Zandt

Paul Wadey
Tuesday 07 January 1997 01:02 GMT

Townes Van Zandt was one of the true poets of the world of country music.

Steve Earle, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, once said of him: "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." Mickey Newbury, another fine Music City songwriter concurred: "He writes like Hank Williams probably would have written, but I tell ya, I think Townes is better. I consider him in the same category as Dylan and McCartney."

Van Zandt's best-known song, the one that he was apt to introduce at live performances as "a medley of my greatest hit", is "Pancho and Lefty". Enigmatic and atmospheric, it remains one of the most discussed country tunes of the past 30 years and has been subject to a variety of interpretations. The writer himself, for example, recalled, "I remember thinking while writing `Pancho and Lefty' that it was not about Pancho Villa. So many people feel that it is, however, that it might be."

In 1983 Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to the top of the country charts, having virtually stumbled upon it when Willie's daughter Lana brought a copy of the Emmylou Harris album Luxury Liner, which featured the song, into the studio. The resulting duet was magic and it served as the title track for a subsequent album. Initial pressings of what was later named Album of the Year by the Country Music Association, were inadvertently labelled "Poncho and Lefty" rather than "Pancho and Lefty". Besides being a collector's items, these long-players may partly explain why the song is now so often mistitled.

The scion of one of Fort Worth's most influential families, Townes Van Zandt readily absorbed the diverse musical sounds that filled the region's airwaves, from the western swing of Bob Wills to the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley and was particularly, and most tellingly, drawn to the great Texas bluesman and storyteller Sam "Lightnin' " Hopkins.

He learned to play guitar by listening to records and, following a brief period in the Peace Corps, moved to Houston where he played in bars and clubs and began to establish a local reputation. His first album, For the Sake of a Song, surfaced on the local Tomato label in 1968 and not only cemented that reputation but brought him to national attention. His sophomore effort Our Mother the Mountain (1969) was produced by the legendary "Cowboy" Jack Clement of Sun Records fame.

Nineteen seventy-two saw the release of his seminal High, Low and In Between which featured not only "Pancho and Lefty" but also "If I Needed You", later successfully covered by Don Williams and Emmylou Harris. It was followed, a year later, by the equally fine The Late, Great, Townes Van Zandt.

Over the past two decades Van Zandt's recorded output proved sporadic. He saw the medium essentially as a means of immortalising his songs and was content to remain a "live" act as albums like Live at the Old Quarter (1977), Live and Obscure (1985) and Roadsongs (1994), on which he salutes some of his old favourite fellow-writers, testify. More recently however, he had returned to the studio, cutting the acclaimed Celtic-flavoured No Deeper Blue (1995) in Ireland with Irish musicians.

Townes Van Zandt was not one of the genre's finest vocalists, but the honesty of his songwriting and the memorable images he painted in words suggest that his work will endure.

Townes Van Zandt, songwriter and singer: born Fort Worth, Texas 7 March 1944; married; died Nashville 1 January 1997.

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