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Townes Van Zandt

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Biography

With an understated voice that quietly overflowed with melancholy, humor, and insight, Townes Van Zandt was an icon of American songwriting. His songs would become hits for other artists, but substance abuse issues, problems with record labels, and general hard luck saw him spending the majority of his life as a cult figure at best, drifting across the world playing tiny rooms up until his early death at 52. Van Zandt was respected and admired by his contemporaries during his life, particularly for a hot streak of records he recorded in the early '70s that included High, Low and in Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. His legacy would grow after he was gone, with various books and documentary projects examining the tragic beauty that touched both his art and his life. Van Zandt was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 7, 1944. His father was in the oil business and the family moved around a lot -- to Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, among other places -- which accounted for his sometimes vague answers to questions of where he "came from." He spent a couple years in a military academy and a bit more time in college in Colorado before dropping out to become a folksinger. (Van Zandt often returned to Colorado in subsequent years, spending entire summers, he said, alone in the mountains on horseback.) He got his first paying gigs on the Houston folk circuit in the mid-'60s, playing clubs like Sand Mountain and the Old Quarter (where in 1973 he recorded one of his finest albums, Live at the Old Quarter, released four years later). During this time he met singers such as Guy Clark (who became a lifelong friend and frequent road partner), Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins, who had a large influence on Van Zandt's guitar playing in particular. Another Texas songwriter, Mickey Newbury, saw Van Zandt in Houston one night and soon had him set up with a recording gig in Nashville (with Jack Clement producing). The sessions became Van Zandt's debut album, For the Sake of the Song, released in 1968 by Poppy Records. The next five years were the most prolific of Van Zandt's career, as Poppy released the albums Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included such gems as "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live's to Fly," "Tecumseh Valley," "Pancho and Lefty," and many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles. In 1973, he recorded sessions that were intended to continue this prolific run. The songs were meant to be released as seventh album Seven Come Eleven, but arguments about unpaid invoices between his manager and the studio eventually resulted in the studio engineer never being compensated for his work and reacting by erasing the tapes. By this point, Van Zandt was well into a habit of regular heroin use and problematic drinking, and his productive times began slowing down. Van Zandt moved to Nashville in 1976 at the urging of his new manager, John Lomax III. He signed a new deal with Tomato Records and in 1977 released Live at the Old Quarter, a double album -- and the first of several live recordings -- that contained many of his finest songs. In 1978, Tomato released Flyin' Shoes; the long list of players on that album included Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham. Van Zandt didn't record again for nearly a decade, but he continued to tour. He moved back to Texas briefly, returning again to Nashville in the mid-'80s. During that decade, his songs began showing up as well-received cover versions by country and folk artists. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a number one country hit with "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983, and versions of his tunes also showed up in renditions by Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, and many others. In 1987, Van Zandt was back in business with his eighth studio album, At My Window, which came out on his new label, Sugar Hill. By this time, Van Zandt's voice had dropped to a lower register, but the weathered, somewhat road-weary edge to it was as pure and expressive as ever. Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure (recorded in a Nashville club in 1985), and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early '90s. In 1990, Van Zandt toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and he wrote a song for them, "Cowboy Junkies Lament," that appeared on the group's Black Eyed Man album (along with a song the Junkies wrote for him, "Townes Blues"). Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, on which Van Zandt covered songs by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, Sugar Hill released No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt's first studio album since 1987. Van Zandt recorded it in Ireland with a group of Irish musicians. Van Zandt sang every song but only played guitar on one. A year and a half after the release of No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt died of a heart attack due to years of substance abuse on January 1, 1997; he was 52 years old. Posthumous releases included collections like Last Rights: The Life & Times of Townes Van Zandt and Anthology: 1968-1979, as well as albums like 1998's Abnormal and the following year's Far Cry from Dead, which featured previously unreleased songs. A collection of Van Zandt demos dating from 1966, a full two years before his proper debut, was issued by the Houston imprint Compadre in April 2003 as In the Beginning.... In 2004, the Margaret Brown-directed documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt arrived. Using archival footage and new interviews with his friends, family, and peers, the film inspected the singer's short and turbulent life and the lasting impressions his music left behind. Throughout the 2000s, there would be a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt's music and enigmatic life, spurred on by film work such as Be Here to Love Me as well as several books and a slew of magazine articles and press coverage revisiting the impact of his songs and story. 2019 saw the release of more vault material in the form of Sky Blue. This spare collection of demos was recorded in 1973 when Van Zandt was drifting through Georgia and included two never-before-heard original songs as well as covers and originals that would see proper release on studio albums. ~ Kurt Wolff & Fred Thomas
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Top Tracks

  1.   Track
    Popularity
  2.   Waitin' Around to Die
  3.   Pancho and Lefty
  4.   Snake Song
  5.   To Live's to Fly
  6.   Tecumseh Valley
  7.   Colorado Girl
  8.   No Lonesome Tune
  9.   Lungs
  10.   Columbine
  11.   Buckskin Stallion Blues
  12.   Like a Summer Thursday
  13.   Only Him or Me
  14.   Nothin'
  15.   Old Shep
  16.   Cowboy Junkies Lament
  17.   Where I Lead Me
  18.   Don't You Take It Too Bad
  19.   St. John the Gambler
  20.   Rex's Blues
  21.   Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls
  22.   If I Needed You
  23.   Greensboro Woman
  24.   Highway Kind
  25.   Flyin' Shoes
  26.   Two Hands
  27.   Dead Flowers
  28.   To Live Is to Fly
  29.   Hey Willy Boy
  30.   White Freight Liner Blues
  31.   Pancho & Lefty featuring Augie Meyers
  32.   Cuckoo Song
  33.   Intro
  34.   Waitin' for the Day
  35.   Black Widow Blues
  36.   Darcy Farrow
  37.   Shrimp Song
  38.   Nine Pound Hammer
  39.   Brother Flower
  40.   Marie by Willie Nelson
  41.   Blaze's Blues
  42.   Racing in the Streets
  43.   Fraulein
  44.   Ira Hayes
  45.   None But the Rain
  46.   Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel
  47.   The Catfish Song
  48.   Ain't Leavin' Your Love
  49.   Our Mother the Mountain
  50.   (Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria
  51.   For the Sake of the Song
  52.   Dollar Bill Blues
  53.   Loretta
  54.   Kathleen
  55.   I've Designed It That Way
  56.   Delta Momma Blues
  57.   Turnstyled, Junkpiled
  58.   Snowin' on Raton
  59.   All Your Young Servants
  60.   Intro
  61.   I Just Had to Fall
  62.   FFV
  63.   All I Need
  64.   Last Thing on My Mind
  65.   At My Window
  66.   Dream Spider
  67.   Blue Ridge Mtns.
  68.   Forever, for Always, for Certain
  69.   Sky Blue
  70.   Hills of Roane County
  71.   Nothing
  72.   Broke Down Engine Blues
  73.   I'll Meet You In the Morning
  74.   Colorado Girl/Just Like Tom Thumb
  75.   Only Him or He
  76.   Wild Crazy Things
  77.   Black Crow Blues
  78.   Big Country Blues
  79.   Colorado Bound
  80.   When Your Dream Lovers Die
  81.   Black Jack Mama
  82.   Gypsy Friday
  83.   Hunger Child Blues
  84.   Maryetta's Song
  85.   (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle
  86.   Dublin Blues
  87.   Talking Thunderbird Blues
  88.   The Ballad of Ira Hayes
  89.   Walbash Cannonball by Kelly Joe Phelps
  90.   Banks of the Ohio
  91.   Katie Belle
  92.   Lost Highway
  93.   Chauffeur's Blues
  94.   Announcement
  95.   You Gotta Move
  96.   Alone & Forsaken
  97.   Stopping off Place
  98.   Squash
  99.   Sanitarium Blues
  100.   Gone Too Long
  101.   BW Railroad Blues
  102.   Lover's Lullaby
  103.   If I Was Washington
  104.   Katie Belle Blue
  105.   Billy, Boney and Ma
  106.   Niles River Blues
  107.   Goin' Down to Memphis
  108.   The Hole
  109.   A Song For
  110.   Blue Ridge Mountains
  111.   When He Offers His Hand
  112.   Who Do You Love
  113.   Fraternity Blues
  114.   High, Low and in Between
  115.   Mr Gold And Mr Mud
  116.   Standin'
  117.   Snow Don't Fall
  118.   German Mustard (A Clap-a-Long)
  119.   Heavenly Houseboat Blues
  120.   Silver Ships of Andilar
  121.   Cocaine Blues
  122.   Little Willie the Gambler
  123.   Man Gave Names to All the Animals
  124.   Short-Haired Woman Blues
  125.   Wabash Cannonball
  126.   Texas River Song
  127.   My Starter Won't Start
  128.   Indian Cowboy
  129.   Hello Central
  130.   Coo Coo
  131.   Automobile Blues
  132.   Gone, Gone Blues
  133.   Still Lookin' for You
  134.   Little Sundance #2
  135.   Blue Wind Blew
  136.   Why She's Acting This Way
  137.   My Proud Mountains
  138.   Second Lover's Song
  139.   She Came and She Touched Me
  140.   Be Here to Love Me
  141.   Talkin' Karate Blues
  142.   The Velvet Voices
  143.   Sad Cinderella
  144.   I'll Be Here in the Morning
  145.   Rake
  146.   Brand New Companion
  147.   Come Tomorrow
  148.   Tower Song
  149.   You Are Not Needed Now
  150.   Snake Mountain Blues
  151.   No Place to Fall
  152.   Two Girls
  153.   When She Don't Need Me
  154.   Pueblo Waltz
  155.   Many a Fine Lady
  156.   Wreck on the Highway
  157.   Radio Introduction
  158.   No Deal
  159.   Don't Let the Sunshine Fool Ya'
  160.   Tying Ten Knots In the Devil's Tail
  161.   Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria featuring Augie Meyers
  162.   Molly and Ten Brooks
  163.   Townes Van Zandt in Kansas City
  164.   Hobo Bill
  165.   Honky Tonkin'
  166.   Doller Bill Blues
  167.   Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues
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