Remembering Townes 1

Townes Van Zandt and the Fort Worth Blues celebrates five years in memoriam of Fort Worth’s native son.

When most people consider the greatest songwriters of all time, several names appear with regularity: Bob Dylan. John Lennon. Joni Mitchell. Neil Young. Bruce Springsteen. Leonard Cohen. One name, often forgotten, deserves a place on this list: Fort Worth’s native son, Townes Van Zandt, a man whose musical accomplishments rival those of anyone.

Townes has never received the recognition that he deserves, least of all here in his home city. The reasons for this neglect are partly mysterious, and partly Townes’s own fault. As an artist and performer, he pursued an idiosyncratic course that excluded practically all of the hallmarks of traditional fame. Label troubles did their own part in dampening Townes’s popularity, as his most influential albums went woefully under-distributed at their release.

If you’re not familiar with Townes, the best place to start is, of course, with the music. Deeply resonant, Townes’s catalog contains some of the most emotionally affective, heart wrenching, and precisely descriptive songs ever recorded. Pancho & Lefty, which Townes invariably introduced as “a medley of my hit,” garnered him some recognition thanks to covers by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson.

The Van Zandt family has deep roots not just in Fort Worth, but in the very foundations of Texas. Isaac Van Zandt, Towne’s great-great-grandfather, helped draft the Texas Constitution, and served as Sam Houston’s Charge D’Affairs to the United States. To honor his contributions, the state legislature named Van Zandt County in his honor.

Isaac’s son, Khleber Miller Van Zandt, found broad success in business. After his discharge as major from the Confederate States Army, K.M. Van Zandt settled the family in Fort Worth, where he founded the Fort Worth National Bank. One of K.M.’s houses, known as the Van Zandt Cottage, is now the oldest extant home in Fort Worth.

On his mother’s side, Towne’s grandfather was one of the founders of the University of Texas Law School, and served as the dean for more than 30 years. When John Townes Van Zandt was born on March 7, 1944, expectations for his success were high.

From young adulthood onward, however, Townes rebelled, and firmly pursued his musical vision. A folksinger in the truest sense of the word, Townes lived purely to create music. His talent blossomed after he moved to Houston, where he made lifelong friends in Steve Earle and Guy Clark. This trio spearheaded a southern renaissance of music in the early 1970s, headquartered at venues like La Carafe on Houston’s Market Square. Gracey Tune, founder and director of Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth, worked the bar at La Carafe.

“Townes would come by every afternoon, and he would come upstairs where the windows were wide open, and he’d sit and stare out over Market Square and start composing music,” says Gracey. “After awhile he’d come order a beer, then go back and sing out the window. It was like a private concert, every day. He was always such a gentleman.”

Over the years, Townes’s artistic output remained steady, despite the desperate substance abuse that would eventually claim his life. Cut down in his prime at the age of 52, Townes’s truncated legacy nevertheless contains some of the greatest music ever written.

A tribute to his legacy, Townes Van Zandt and the Fort Worth Blues, has been performed for the past five years at Arts Fifth Avenue. Written and directed by Bruce Payne, the show served to memorialize Townes and expose his talents to a new generation. Bruce credits the idea for the event to Rex Bell, Townes’s former bass player and owner of the Old Quarter.

“I got the idea to start doing this from a wake that Rex holds in Galveston every year on January 1st, the day Townes died,” says Bruce. “It was an open mic night, with 150 to 200 people sitting in rapt attention while people sang Townes tunes. I wondered why no one was doing something like that in Fort Worth.”

The show’s fifth and final performance occurred recently on March 11th. Townes’s immortal music will live on forever, while his spirit, as ephemeral as the love and loss recorded in his songs, suffuses the city of his birth. Townes had a deep and abiding love for Fort Worth, and often returned here in-between tours.

“One time I was at the Old Quarter in Galveston,” says Bruce. “And Rex Bell says, ‘Every time we came in off the road, Townes would cackle and say ‘There’s Fort Worth, bigger than Dallas.’”