Beginning with the Van Zandt family's deep roots in Texas, debut author Robert Earl Hardy draws on interviews with relatives and friends to delve into the surprisingly normal childhood of Townes Van Zandt (1944–97).
An avid reader and school vice president, his life changed in 1956 when he received his first guitar, a Christmas gift from his father. Roaming around the country, Van Zandt continued to hone his craft and his sensibility: "Townes felt things more than the rest of us did. It was deeper, somehow," his sister claimed.
From here, Hardy moves on to discuss the amusing and cloudy story of Van Zandt's first recording contract, "bizarre even by industry standards." The resulting overproduced album, "For the Sake of the Song," showcased a problem that would plague the artist for years: The music industry didn't know what to make of his unique talents.
He was one of a number of musicians, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris, who in the mid-'70s were shaking up Nashville—and moving the center of authentic country music toward Van Zandt's native Texas—with rougher, more challenging material. But Van Zandt sometimes sabotaged his chances with reckless behavior. He struggled with bipolar disorder, and marriage and fatherhood did nothing to curb his appetite for drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs.
Hardy delineates the musician's chaotic life in honest, often dramatic detail, but always brings the attention and focus back to Van Zandt's music and the classic songs he penned, including "St. John the Gambler," "Our Mother the Mountain" and "Tecumseh Valley." Steering through the myths and legends, the author depicts a troubled individual and gifted artist who inspired many singers and songwriters in the alternative country scene.