Townes Van Zandt, the tall Texan whose hard-living lifestyle and poetic songwriting made him a revered folk hero, is regularly cited as one of the finest songwriters of the past quarter-century.
Singer-songwriters who matter, from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson, have trumpeted his talent. His most vocal and visible supporter, however, has been country-rock iconoclast Steve Earle, whose forthcoming album, Townes, is an all-covers tribute to the songs of his late friend and mentor, who died 12 years ago at 52 after decades of alcohol addiction.
Townes, which hits stores tomorrow, "may be one of the best records I've ever made," Earle has said. Hard not to take his word for it. Van Zandt -- a poet, manic depressive, alcoholic, and heir to an oil fortune he disavowed -- certainly knew how to spin a song. In celebration of the man we present 10 performers who are part of the legacy of this tower of song.
1 Steve Earle met Van Zandt for the first time in 1972 when he was 17. True to form, Van Zandt showed no mercy: He took delight in heckling the greenhorn during one of Earle's early concerts. The two later became fast friends, and while both had serious dependency issues -- heroin was Earle's vice; Van Zandt's was alcohol -- their bond was sacrosanct. Earle wrote 1997's Fort Worth Blues in honour of his late friend, whose ashes were scattered in the streets of Fort Worth, Tex., near what used to be the site of the Van Zandt family farm.
2 Mickey Newbury crossed paths with Van Zandt in late '60s at a Houston recording studio. Newbury, who by that point had written songs for Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, persuaded him to head to Nashville, where Van Zandt was introduced to "Cowboy" Jack Clement, a former producer at Sun Records. The collaboration resulted in 1968's For the Sake of the Song.
3 Van Zandt was the best man at the wedding of Guy Clark, a bond which remained unbroken until the end. When asked what his all-time favourite recordings were, Van Zandt included Clark's 1975 debut, Old No. 1, on the list alongside recordings by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and the Beatles.
4 In 1990, Van Zandt toured with Cowboy Junkies, prompting him to write the song, Cowboy Junkies Lament, in their honour. The Toronto band's version of it appeared alongside a cover of Van Zandt's To Live is to Fly on their 1992 album, Black Eyed Man, as did a song the Junkies wrote for him, Townes' Blues. That's not all. Blue Guitar, written by the Junkies' Michael Timmins and Van Zandt, appeared on the group's 1998 recording, Miles From Our Home.
5 Van Zandt's most famous song, Pancho and Lefty, was given the royal treatment by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on their album of the same name, which hit the top of the country charts in 1983.
6 Emmylou Harris was one of the many stars who covered Pancho and Lefty (Bob Dylan is another), but her dance with Van Zandt wasn't a one-off. She also tried her hand at five more at various points in her career, quite often in the duet format with partners Nanci Griffith and Don Williams. Never once did a Harris version of a Van Zandt gem fail to click.
7 Perhaps it is no surprise that Lyle Lovett was discovered by Guy Clark, given the quality of his songwriting skills, which are comparable to those of Clark's old friend, Van Zandt. Lovett brought the comparison into sharper focus on 1998's Step Inside This House, a covers-only record which paid tribute to Lovett's fellow Texas songwriters. Lovett put his own spin on four Van Zandt originals, including one of his all-time best, Lungs.
8 Members of the Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock) each have successful solo careers, but together they are credited with pioneering a distinctly Texas brand of country-folk during the early '70s. Interestingly, it was a chance 1969 meeting between Ely and Van Zandt, who was hitch-hiking through the sweltering Lubbock, Tex., desert -- carrying only copies of his new album, 1969's Townes Van Zandt, one of which he gave to Ely -- that led to the actual formation of the group.
9 Norah Jones is certainly more jazz than country or folk, but her talent is without question -- equal to her gift for spinning Van Zandt originals with rootsy results. She covered his Be Here to Love Me on 2004's Feels Like Home, and took a run (with help from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) on another one, Loretta, during a live DVD from that same year.
10 It goes without saying that Neil Young's defining moment as a country-folkie, 1972's Harvest, is greatly indebted to the influence of Van Zandt. Young had flirted with country as far back as 1969, but picking sessions with Van Zandt, Clark and Earle in Nashville song circles had a big effect. For the 1985 concert which became Van Zandt's Live and Obscure album, Young was in the crowd at 12th & Porter in Nashville -- watching, and presumably in awe.