John Townes Van Zandt might be one of the most under-appreciated American musicians. His gorgeously arranged music spans the line between genius, depression, psychosis, and poetry. It goes without saying, Townes Van Zandt is one of the most influential musicians to emerge out of the 60’s – 70’s blues, country, and folk movement. He has influenced a spectrum of American musicians with his lyrical masterpieces, folklore, musings, ambitions, and love hymns. Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss Gillian Welch, Devendra Banhart, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris only represent a small handful of the talent he has left a mark of influence on.
Not surprisingly, Van Zandt drew his influence from the likes of early Bob Dylan, Texas Blues greats like Lightning Hopkins, to Delta legends and back to the Appalachian blues movement. To say the least, Van Zandt pulled from a range of sound and life experience ultimately giving him the unique and authentic sound that he is associated with today. Not surprisingly, Van Zandt often played dive bars, the perfect back-drop to his life of alcoholism. People have said that he would easily consume a pint of vodka daily. Despite the enormous potential Van Zandt had for fame, he was taken advantage of by producers, shied away from owning the rights to his music, drank his life away, and was robbed of thousands of dollars. His name will never be forgotten though because his impact on American music tradition will live on for eternity. His story is sadder than most. Before his death in 1997, that was a product of alcoholism, Towne’s had produced hundreds of covers and original songs to join the archives of truly American musicology and tradition.
Toward the end of his life, Van Zandt had accrued stories of having nights in which he was too drunk to find the stage or hold his guitar. His sobriety became a very physical problem and he required alcohol for normalcy. The saddest kind of story evolved as he drank his life away and pickled his voice with alcohol. He became notorious for his drug addictions and alcoholism. It was his very real battle with substance abuse that gave him an unreal ability to deposit his experience into his music. When listening to Van Zandt you can not help but be transported to a melancholic world with harrowing battles, a life of loss and misunderstanding, chronic depression masked with beautiful mania, disillusion, alcoholism, and eventually an untimely death.
There are so many songs I could draw from to capture Van Zandt’s unique ability to tell an authentic poetic story and still impact a range of your emotions. Most of the songs I’d draw from are quite sad, but I’m choosing to pick only one song, “Willy Boy.” “Willy Boy” off his album No Deeper Blue is, in my opinion, one of the sweetest and most beautiful songs ever made and is without question one of the more simple and striking from Van Zandt’s repertoire. So the story goes, Van Zandt wrote “Willy Boy” for his 12 year old boy. It is a beautiful song of love and affection, a lullaby. But when you listen to Van Zandt sing it, you hear a voice of sadness. the juxtaposition is interesting. No matter what though, Townes Van Zandt is one of the most influential musicians of the past 50 years.