Born into a wealthy oil family, Van Zandt was a third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt (a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas) and a second great-grandson of Khleber Miller Van Zandt (a Confederate Major and one of the founders of Fort Worth). Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848. Townes’ parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913–1966) and Dorothy Townes (1919–1983). He had two siblings, Bill and Donna. Harris was a corporate lawyer, and his career required the family to move several times during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the family transplanted from Fort Worth to Midland, Texas, for six months before moving to Billings, Montana.At Christmas in 1956, Townes’ father gave him a guitar, which he practiced while wandering the countryside. He would later tell an interviewer that “watching Elvis Presley’s October 28, 1956, performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was the starting point for me becoming a guitar player… I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing.
That made a big impression on me.” In 1958 the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. Van Zandt would remember his time in Colorado fondly and would often visit it as an adult. He would also later refer to Colorado in the songs “My Proud Mountains,” “Colorado Girl,” and “Snowin’ On Raton.”During his youth Townes was noted as a good student and active in team sports. In grade school, he received a high IQ score and his parents began grooming him to become a lawyer or senator. Fearing that his family would move again, he willingly decided to attend Shattuck School in Faribault, Minnesota. He received a score of 1170 when he took the SAT in January 1962 His family soon moved to Houston, Texas.The University of Colorado at Boulder accepted Van Zandt as a student in 1962. In the spring of his second year, his parents flew to Boulder to bring Townes back to Houston, apparently worried about his binge drinking and episodes of depression. They admitted him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he was diagnosed with manic depression. He received three months of insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Afterwards, his mother’s “biggest regret in life was that she had allowed that treatment to occur”. In 1965 he was accepted into the University of Houston’s pre-law program. Soon after he attempted to join the Air Force, but was rejected due to a doctor’s diagnosis that labelled him “an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life”. He quit school around 1967, having been inspired by his singer-songwriter heroes to pursue a career in playing music.In 1965 Van Zandt began playing regular shows at the Jester Lounge in Houston for $10 per night.
There he met fellow musicians Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson. His repertoire consisted mostly of covers of songs written by Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and others, as well as original novelty songs like “Fraternity Blues.” In 1966, Harris Van Zandt had encouraged his son to stop playing covers and write his own songs. In 1968 Van Zandt met songwriter Mickey Newbury in a Houston coffee shop. Newbury persuaded Van Zandt to go to Nashville, where he was introduced by Newbury to the man who would become his longtime producer, “Cowboy” Jack Clement.Among Van Zandt’s major influences was Texas blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose songs were a constant part of his repertoire. He also cited Bob Dylan and Hank Williams as having had a major impact on his music. Van Zandt also cited such varied artists as Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, Blind Willie McTell, Tchaikovsky, and Jefferson Airplane as influences.The years between 1968 and 1973 would prove to be Van Zandt’s most prolific era. He released six albums during the time period: “For the Sake of the Song”, Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Among the tracks written for these albums were “To Live Is to Fly,” “Pancho and Lefty”, and “If I Needed You”.
These songs would eventually raise Van Zandt to near-legend status in American and European songwriting circles. In 1972 Van Zandt recorded tracks for an album with a working title of Seven Come Eleven, which would remain unreleased for many years due to a dispute between his manager Kevin Eggers and producer Jack Clement. Eggers either could not or refused to pay for the studio sessions, so Clement erased the master tapes. However, before they were deleted, Eggers sneaked into the studio and recorded rough mixes of the songs on to a cassette tape. Tracks from the aborted “Seven Come Eleven” debacle would later surface on “The Nashville Sessions”.In 1975 Van Zandt was featured prominently in the documentary film “Heartworn Highways” with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Charlie Daniels and David Allan Coe. His segment of the film was shot at his run-down trailer home in Austin, Texas, where Van Zandt is shown drinking straight whiskey during the middle of the day, shooting and playing with guns, and performing the songs “Waitin’ Around to Die” and “Pancho & Lefty.” His soon-to-be second wife Cindy and dog Geraldine (a large, “keenly intelligent” half-wolf, half-husky) are also featured in the film.In 1977 “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” was released. The album showcased Van Zandt solo at a 1973 concert before a small audience, and less elaborately produced than many of his early records The album received positive reviews, and is considered by many to be among the best albums that the songwriter ever released. Several points on the album showcased his dry sense of humor, a feature that also showed in some of his songwriting.In the mid-1970s, Van Zandt split from his longtime manager, Kevin Eggers. He found a new manager, John Lomax III (grandson of the famed folk music historian John Lomax), who set up a fan club for Van Zandt.
Though the club was only advertised through small ads in the back of music magazines, Lomax immediately began to receive hundreds of impassioned letters from around the world written by people who felt touched by Van Zandt. Some of the letters described how his material often served as a crutch for those who were dealing with depression. In the summer of 1978, the singer fired Lomax and re-hired Eggers. He soon after signed to Eggers’ new label, Tomato Records. The following year, he recorded “Flyin’ Shoes”, but would not release another album until 1987’s “At My Window”.Despite critical acclaim, Van Zandt remained a cult figure. He normally played small venues (often to crowds of fewer than fifty people) but began to move towards playing larger venues (and even made a handful of television appearances) during the 1990s. For much of the 1970s, he lived a reclusive life outside of Nashville in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack with no heat, plumbing or telephone, occasionally appearing in town to play shows. Steve Earle would later say that Van Zandt’s primary concerns during this time period were planting morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey’s radio show, and watching the sitcom “Happy Days”.Several of Van Zandt’s compositions were recorded by other artists, such as Emmylou Harris who, with Don Williams, had a # 3 country hit in 1981 with “If I Needed You,” and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, the pair taking “Pancho & Lefty” to #1 on the country charts in 1983. Van Zandt had a small cameo appearance in the video for the song. In his later years he recorded less frequently, his voice and singing style altered in part because of his lifestyle and alcoholism. However, he continued writing songs, such as “Marie” and “The Hole.”According to Susanna Clark, Van Zandt turned down repeated invitations to write with Bob Dylan. Dylan was reportedly a “big fan” of Townes and claimed to have all of his records; Van Zandt admired Dylan’s songs, but didn’t care for his celebrity. The two first met during a chance encounter outside a costume shop in the South Congress district of Austin, Texas, on June 21, 1986.
According to Johnny Guess, Dylan later arranged another meeting with the songwriter. The Drag in Austin was shut down due to Dylan being in town; Van Zandt drove his motor home to the cordoned-off area, after which Dylan boarded the vehicle and requested to hear him play several songs.In May and June 1990, he opened for The Cowboy Junkies during a two-month-long tour of the United States and Canada, which exposed him to a younger generation of fans.As a result, he wrote the song “Cowboy Junkies Lament” for the group, with a verse about each respective member of the band.After his death, the 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt. During the decade, two books, a documentary film, and a number of magazine articles about the singer were created.While alive, Van Zandt had a small and devoted fanbase, but he never had a successful album or single and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print.
In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song “Pancho and Lefty,” scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts. Despite achievements like these, the bulk of his life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins, and on friends’ couches. Van Zandt was notorious for his drug addictions, alcoholism, and his tendency to tell tall tales. When young, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.Van Zandt continued writing and performing through the 1990s, though his output slowed noticeably as time went on. He had enjoyed some sobriety during the early 1990s, but was actively abusing alcohol during the final years of his life. In 1994 he was admitted to the hospital to detox, during which time a doctor told Jeanene Van Zandt that trying to detox Townes again could potentially kill him. He grew increasingly frail during the mid-1990s, with some long-time friends noting that he seemed to have “withered.”In the spring of 1996, he was contacted by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, who informed Van Zandt that he was interested in recording and releasing an album for him on the band’s Ecstatic Peace label, funded by Geffen. Van Zandt agreed, and sessions were scheduled to begin in Memphis during late December of that year.On December 19th or 20th, Van Zandt fell down the concrete stairs outside his home, badly injuring his hip. After lying outside for an hour, he dragged himself inside and called his ex-wife Jeanene, who sent their friends Royann and Jim Calvin to check on him. He told the couple that he had sustained the injury while getting out of bed, and refused medical treatment.
They took him back to their home, and he spent the Christmas week on their couch, unable to get up even to use the bathroom.Determined to finish the album that he had scheduled to record with Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar, Van Zandt arrived at the Memphis studio being pushed in a wheelchair by road manager Harold Eggers. Shelley canceled the sessions due to the songwriter’s erratic behavior and drunkenness. Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, but not before returning to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, eight days passed since the injury. On December 31st, X-rays revealed that Van Zandt had an impacted left femoral neck fracture in his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed. Jeanene informed the surgeon that one of Townes’ previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him The medical staff tried to explain to her that detoxing a “late-term alcoholic” at home would be ill-advised, but he would have a better chance at recovering under hospital supervision. She did not heed these warnings, and instead checked Townes out of the hospital against medical advice. Understanding that he would most likely drink immediately after leaving the hospital, the physicians refused to prescribe him any painkillers.By the time Van Zandt was checked out of the hospital early the next morning, he had begun to show signs of DTs. Jeanene rushed him to her car, where she gave him a flask of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Smyrna, Tennessee, and giving him alcohol, he was “lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone.” Jim Calvin shared a marijuana joint with him, and he was also given about four Tylenol PM tablets.While Jeanene was on the phone with Susanna Clark, their son Will noticed that Townes had stopped breathing and “looked dead.” He alerted his mother, who attempted to perform CPR, “screaming his name between breaths.” Townes Van Zandt died in the early morning hours of January 1, 1997, at the age of 52. His official cause of death was “natural” cardiac arrhythmia. He died forty-four years to the day after Hank Williams, one of his main songwriting influences.Two services were held for Van Zandt: one in Texas, mostly attended by family; and another in a large Nashville church, attended by friends, acquaintances, and fans. Some of his ashes were placed underneath a headstone in the Van Zandtfamily plot at the Dido Cemetery in Dido, Texas, outside of Fort Worth.Van Zandt married Fran Petters on August 26, 1965; a son, John Townes “J.T.” Van Zandt II, was born to them on April 11, 1969, in Houston. The couple were divorced on January 16, 1970. She would later remarry, changing her last name to Lohr.He moved in with Cindy Morgan in late 1974, and the two married in Nashville in September 1978. They became estranged for much of the early 1980s, and were divorced on February 10, 1983, in Travis County, Texas. They had no children together. She would later remarry, changing her last name to Lindgram.Van Zandt’s third and final marriage was to Jeanene Munsell. They met on December 9, 1980 at a memorial for John Lennon. When the terminally-ill Dorothy Van Zandt learned that her son had impregnated Munsell, she told him, “You’re going to do the right thing and honor that baby.” He soon after divorced from his estranged second wife, and married Munsell on March 14, 1983; their first child, William Vincent, was born ten days later. Another child, Katie Belle, was born February 14, 1992.
Van Zandt and Munsell were divorced on May 2, 1994. However, the two remained close until Townes’ death, and Jeanene became an executor of the Estate of Townes Van Zandt.Around the time of their April 1993 separation, Jeanene Van Zandt coaxed the musician into signing over the publishing rights of his entire back catalog and recording royalties to her and their children. Townes’s only source of income after this point was money received from concert engagements, and even then Townes would frequently visit his ex-wife and “give her all the money in his pockets. Following their divorce in 1994, his only worldly possessions were listed as a 1989 GMC Truck with camper shell, a 1984 Honda Shadow Motorcycle and a 1983 Starwind 22-foot boat named Dorothy; he also retained sole ownership of his family inheritance of “ownership in oil lease and mineral rights.At the time of his death, he had begun a long-distance relationship with a woman named Claudia Winterer from Darmstadt, Germany The two met in November 1995 during a concert of his in Hanau. Van Zandt told several friends that His music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch. He planned on marrying Winterer, but the two never became formally engaged. Van Zandt’s music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Wade Bowen, Guy Clark, Andrew Bird, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch,Luke Redfield, Laura Marling, The Avett Brothers, Frank Turner, Devendra Banhart, and John Prine..