Works of Van Zandt held in awe by peers

Songwriter often compared to novelists

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The songs of folk singer Townes Van Zandt are held in awe by the toughest possible critics - his peers.

The Texan who died Wednesday at 52 could and did write sublime love songs (the most famous was "If I Needed You,'' a No. 3 hit for Don Williams and Emmylou Harris in 1981).

But Van Zandt, whose health had become precarious in recent years, specialized in more complex fare that brought more comparisons to novelists than other songwriters.

A short list would include narratives like "Pancho and Lefty,'' "Our Mother the Mountain,'' "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,'' "A Song For,'' "Marie'' and "Cowboy Junkies Lament.''

His songs were recorded by Nanci Griffith, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Hoyt Axton, The Cowboy Junkies and Steve Earle. "White Freight Liner Blues'' is a barroom staple that country star Hal Ketchum uses to open his show to this day.

Friend and fellow Texas songwriter Guy Clark said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press that Van Zandt "doesn't do craft songwriting.''

"It's literature. It approaches that to me. I think we should all aspire to that.''

Clark was visiting at Van Zandt's Smyrna home when Van Zandt died of an apparent heart attack. Van Zandt had recently returned home after undergoing hip surgery a week before. It was the latest in a series of setbacks including a long-running drinking problem and pneumonia in 1994.

Wednesday evening, Clark and Jeanene Van Zandt, Townes Van Zandt's ex-wife, were in another room when daughter Katie Belle Van Zandt alerted them that something was wrong.

"They rushed into the room and Townes was already gone,'' said Beverly Paul of Sugar Hill Records.

Born into a prosperous Fort Worth, Texas, oil family on March 7, 1944, Van Zandt started out emulating bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. He released his first album, "For the Sake of the Song,'' in 1968. It featured one of his signature songs, "Tecumseh Valley,'' the heartbreaking tale of a young girl who comes to a small town, falls into prostitution and dies.

"Songs like `Tecumseh Valley' ... have saved me from many a bad time in my life,'' Griffith said Thursday.

Earle wrote in the liner notes for Van Zandt's 1987 album "At My Window:''

"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.''

Van Zandt was a fixture on the folk club circuit, and did particularly well touring in Europe. Live, he used heavy doses of humor to leaven his many-times downbeat material.

In an interview with the AP in 1995, Van Zandt said he felt a duty to address the trials of life's losers.

"The point is that people I've taken real serious are already in real serious trouble,'' Van Zandt said. "If I take them seriously, that's a step up.''

Survivors include two sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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Copyright Lubbock Avalanche-Journal 1996