Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was born into the closest thing to royalty in Texas. The son of a wealthy lawyer and the descendant of the Republic of Texas politician Issac Van Zandt (namesake of Van Zandt County), Townes was expected to follow his dad into law. Instead, he would drop out of college following a bout of depression (treated with the horrific and now discredited insulin shock therapy) and ensconce himself in the blues/folk scene of 1960s Houston. Van Zandt would rapidly build a reputation among musicians (in particular, his friend Steve Earle has been a longstanding champion of his work) for his highly poetic songs and deft guitar playing.
Releasing ten studio albums over the course of his life, Van Zandt would never find mainstream success (if that was even his intention). For most of his career, Van Zandt lived a hand-to-mouth existence with few possessions, traveling from venue to venue. His greatest visibility among the general public would come after Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson scored a hit in 1983 with a cover of Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”. Struggling with substance abuse throughout his adult life, Van Zandt would die at the age of 52 due to cardiac problems related to alcohol withdrawal. While his existence could be seen as sad to some, Van Zandt achieved a rare sort of immortality as an exemplary lyricist; writing ballads that were often bleak and sometimes wryly humorous, accompanied by sparse instrumentation and delivered in his trademark reedy drawl.