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.