A Visit to Townes Van Zandt

July 11, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Outlaw History  //  27 Comments

Right now there is no bigger singer/songwriter in American roots music than Townes Van Zandt. Don’t pay any mind that the man has been dead for 14 years, his influence is as deep as ever. Townes is everywhere, in liner notes, in turns of phrases, and in the actions of songwriters who tirelessly try to hurdle themselves over the lofty bar Van Zandt set before his unfortunate and early passing at the age of 52.

On New Year’s Day in 1997, unless you ran in the close circles around him or were part of his modest fan base, you likely had no idea of Van Zandt’s passing, or even who Van Zandt was. Why would you? Despite being responsible for Willie Nelson’s #1 hit with Merle Haggard “Pancho & Lefty”, he was a local working Austin musician with a moderate draw and a few records struggling to stay in print. As big as he might be now, in the late 90’s, he was an obscure, commercially-unsuccessful artist that lived out of backwood cabins and on friend’s couches. Granted, some of the friends that owned those couches were pretty famous.

During a recent road trip I found myself driving near the area of Van Zandt’s grave. I’d heard stories of people making the pilgrimage to the small North Texas town of Dido, to the Van Zandt family plot at the Dido Memorial Cemetery, to pay their respects and take in the contrast of how such a towering man in music ended up in such an out-of-the-way and humble resting place.

Driving Highway 114 out of Dallas, I took a left on Farm to Market Road 3433 in the small town of Rhome, and then followed it into the smaller town of Newark. Then drove FM 718 to Morriss-Dido Road, which takes you past the sprawling compound of televangelist Kenneth Copeland, and then into the very small community of Dido, resting on the banks of Eagle Mountain Lake. A few little fishing cabins and mom & pop restaurants greet you as you cross a small arm of the lake, and then you come up a hill, and just across from the Methodist Church is the Dido Memorial Cemetery.

The cemetery rests on the grounds of the original Dido settlement. There is a small community center and the steps and foundation of the original Dido school built originally in 1854, where a historical marker is placed. The Van Zandt family plot sits in section A, just to the left as you enter the cemetery, past a shady grove of hardwoods. Townes’ stone is to the right of the main Van Zandt marker, with the inscription “To Live’s To Fly”. Someone had left a yellow guitar pick there.

Townes Van Zandt’s story is one of hope, for all of music and musicians, and artists of all kinds. As much as he struggled commercially, socially, and with his own demons, somehow over time the cream still found a way to rise to the top.

It is a shame that some of the greatest have such a hard time relating to life, and that Townes Van Zandt found his greatest success after death. But he found it.



27 Comments to “A Visit to Townes Van Zandt”

  • Great Article, I really enjoy those historical posts. Him and Gram Parsons are two forgotten heroes that i discoverd these past months. Both were awesome in their own ways !

  • I had the great pleasure of meeting Townes a few times in my teenage years. I went to high school with his son. he was a cool dude and I love his music.

  • Nice job. RIP, Townes.

  • Townes is a great American Poet.

  • I very heavily got into Townes (and Guy Clark!!) in my late teens which was too late to see the man live. From what people tell me he was pretty popular here in Germany (and other European countries) so it sucks to have been at the right place, but at the wrong time. There’s a good amount of people here interested in American roots music and I think there’s absolutely no doubt in anybody’s mind that Townes was one of the great ones. I mean, one of the REALLY great ones of which there are probably just a handful. Not everything he touched became gold, but when it happened…oh man., it leaves you just breathless. No matter how often I listen to Lungs, or Rake, or even lighter stuff like Loretta, it gets to me every damn time. And there’s been many a times I listened to the man 24/7. He’s the best.

    On the one hand it’s good to see so many people paying respect and the amount of tribute albums is increasing every year. Too bad most of them are pretty awful – even Earle’s regular version of TOWNES (the bonus CD should’ve been the proper album). Maybe it’s just too damn hard to do those songs justice. Maybe it’s too tough to really go there. There are some exceptions though. Guy himself, JTE, Ben Weaver (Two Girls!!) and a couple of others did some good work. But there’s nothing like Townes himself.

  • Oh man, I got carried away there. What I wanted to say was: Thanks for sharing the trip with us, Triggerman! Always nice to read and see, and appreciated, especially since I doubt I’ll ever make it there. Cheers!

    • I second what Martin Luther Presley says. Thanks for sharing this Triggerman. Those photos are so pretty and serene, did you take all of them?

      • Yes, I took the pictures. I didn’t really think they were that good. I got there at the worst time, the shadows were over everything. I had to take a picture of the headstone upside down, because right side up I cast a shadow over it.

        • I think because it’s a cemetary the shadows work beautifully. Mind you, I’m an old goth so I love taking photos of burial sites. Just out of curiosity, did you get any ‘orbs’ in any of your shots? These are supposedly spirit activity. I took a bunch of photos at a place called ‘The Pirates House’ in Savannah, Georgia. It was an old pub that was a hangout for pirates back in the day. There was a creepy cellar underneath and I took a bunch of photos. When I uploaded them to my computer there were massive white orbs all over them. Spooky!

  • I’ve seen Townes perform onstage three times. The first time, I think that was maybe 1989, or 1990, he was absolutely sensational, he really got an audience of about 200 people listening to his songs, you could hear a pin drop most of the night. And there are only few who can do that today.
    Next time I saw him he was just good, nothing special, just good. And the third time was probably one of his last gigs, being late november 1996, opening for Dale Watson. It was awful, he hardly knew where he was, didn’t finish the stories between songs, his voice was a mess. He pissed me off so bad that day that I announced in my radio-show that I wasn’t going to play his music for a while. Not knowing that early in the next year I would have to pay tribute to him, and it made me sad that I had to see him in such a mess. Maybe he passed too early, but maybe that saved us from having to watch him break down his reputation. The fact that he is still an inspiration proves the quality of his songwriting, as do the many brilliant covers of his songs. I’m a Steve Earle-fan, so I heard quite a few from him, long before his full cd with Townes-songs.
    If you’re gonna buy one Townes-cd, my suggestion would be Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. Recorded in 1973. There’s also a good documentary on dvd: Be Here To Love Me, and there’s quite a bit of Townes in Heartworn Highways.
    Townes will be remembered for a long time.

  • Your article just made me listen to “Waiting around to die”, probably the best song ever. Well, I broke my routine, usually I listen to this best of all songs 2 times a week. Right now it’s monday and I did already suffered 2 times … Thanks.

  • Great post triggerman, the great ones live on forever.

  • Excellent article and a great personalized look at searching for meaning in Townes himself and in his timeless music. There are truly few masters of American song. Only Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams spring to mind at the moment–artists who constantly worked at a high level and existed somewhere in an elevated state of consciousness that others seemingly don’t have access to. Townes is certainly one of them and his music will live on and only gain more recognition as people continue to awaken to the sheer brilliance he possessed. It’s above and beyond the confines of genre. I hear people say all the time that Townes is one of the few “country” or “folk” artists they enjoy. Townes is beyond the confines of genre and his lyrics showed an intelligence and insight above and beyond the flesh.

    • Incidentally (damn I’m getting verbose on this story) for those not fortunate enough to have spent any time here in the Lone Star State :) , Townes is revered as something of a musical deity here. I grew up raised by my grandparents and there was always great music like the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Big John Cash, Willie and Townes (to name a scant few) coming from the stereo tapedecks, as a result, it’s almost hard for me to fathom that so many people don’t know about Townes. It seems criminal, too, that he is comparatively so obscure to other lesser talents.

      Someone, I believe it was the great folklorist and historian J. Frank Dobie, once said of Townes that he was “the best writer in the country genre,” but it goes way beyond that. Townes’ songs are so damn good that they can be interpreted any number of ways. I’ve even heard a death metal cover of “Pancho and Lefty” that sounded cool.

  • Almost praised to point of being over-rated, then I listen to him again and remember that all praise for him is just. I am late to the party on him as well. After repeated viewings of Big Lebowski and hearing Steve Earl’s sirius program while promoting his “Townes” album I bought my first album and became a hardcore fan. He was a true genius – thanks for paying him his due respect. I believe that his songwriting will continue to be revered for hundreds of years. I actually just turned my nephew onto learning to play “Brother Flower.”

  • A poet like Townes should be remembered.

    • Yes. Yes, he should. Townes’s songs remind us what it means to be human. Townes’s genius is the sort of thing that, unfortunately, seems to only be recognized outside of his peers in hindsight. It is only now, in 2011, that Townes is up for induction in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside people like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Larry Gatlin. Not sure how it works, but I believe they only induct one or two artists in the “artist/songwriter” category, and if the induction criteria was with quality of content, it wouldn’t be a contest at all. Townes’s music stands both as incredible songs and as serious literature when taken away from the melody. Can’t think of any other songwriters that can also be said for, and no less an authority than former Texas poet laureate Larry D. Thomas made that observation to me.

  • WONDERFUL article.

  • Ha! Jewel just had a baby last night. Guess what its middle name is?

    And thanks everyone for the kudos on the article. It takes good inspiration for good writing.

    • Actually that’s interesting in more ways than one. I have often wondered why Jewel hasn’t gone down the ‘country’ route, or been labelled as such. Her sound has always been folksy and she’s married to a real life cowboy.

      • I think Jewel’s last few album have been marketed as country, they just haven’t been very popular, so we haven’t heard much about her.

        • Silly me, I should have known.

    • Didn’t Steve Earle already use that name for his kid before it was trendy??

  • Another artist I know very little about. Thanks for shedding some light on this freebird . . .

  • Saw him at Nietzsche’s – legendary bar in Buffalo – around 1989. Dark, dark, dark, sombre, very captivating show. I have a memory of a song that suffocated – a lot of heroin and hurt in that song. Was there a “green room” phrase? Can’t remember.

    Saw him again shortly before he died. He was in rough shape, in a wheelchair maybe, but he was not dark. He seemed happy.

    Nice writeup, Trig. Nice pilgrimage.

  • I live about 5 miles away from the Cemetary and finally made it out Saturday. Someone had left a bottle of Jack on the Gravestone. Very peaceful place.

  • Goodbye and Rest in peace Townes, 17 years ago today.

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