Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame to Honor the 'Timeless' Work of the Late Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Townes Van Zandt, circa 1970.

This Sunday, his peers will honor the late, legendary Texas songwriter.

"Townes Van Zandt ranks alongside Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan,” says Grammy-winning country artist Rodney Crowell of the late singer-songwriter. “He inspired so many songwriters to shoot for something that’s timeless.”

On Oct. 9, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct the late Van Zandt -- known for songs like “Pancho & Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “No Place to Fall” -- during its 46th annual gala at the Music City Center in Nashville. The evening also will honor fellow songwriters Aaron Barker, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bob Morrison.

Pat Alger, chairman of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors, acknowledges that Van Zandt, who died on New Year’s Day in 1997 at the age of 52 of an apparent heart attack, never achieved the hitmaking status of other inductees, which includes stars from Gene Autry to Tammy Wynette. “But once in a while,” says Alger, “there’s a songwriter whose lack of giant copyrights doesn’t reflect his importance to the songwriting community. Townes was a unique writer of great style, an original thinker whose narrative gifts came to define the Texas songwriting of his era.”

Van Zandt’s success on the charts first came with “If I Needed You,” recorded by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, which reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list in 1981, and then “Pancho & Lefty” -- Van Zandt’s tale of two bandits -- recorded by compadres Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, which topped Hot Country Songs in 1983.

“He was not prone to writing commercial songs,” says Crowell. “He followed the music and the notion of poetry, which makes his songs still vital today.”

Born in Houston to an affluent family, Van Zandt chose the life of a troubadour. Immersing himself in the Houston nightlife of the 1960s, he met fellow musicians like Guy Clark, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jerry Jeff Walker and Doc Watson. Hit songwriter Mickey Newbury, who penned “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” for Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, encouraged Van Zandt to move to Nashville and introduced him to his longtime producer Cowboy Jack Clement.

Van Zandt and Clement collaborated on the songwriter’s 1968 debut album, For the Sake of the Song. Some found the release to be overproduced, but it launched Van Zandt’s reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years that followed, his tunes were covered by singers including Harris, Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and The Cowboy Junkies, with whom Van Zandt toured in the 1990s.

“Townes taught us that the only thing more elusive than a great song was a great Brandy Alexander,” says The Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins with a laugh, “but both can be found in the most unexpected places -- so never stop looking.”

But for Van Zandt, who was married three times, that search was troubled by battles with alcohol, drug addiction and depression throughout his life. Yet he “really believed in the healing powers of music,” says Will Van Zandt, the singer’s son by his third marriage and co-owner with the family of TVZ Records. He and his sister, Katie Belle, will be joined by their mother, Jeanene, who was Townes' third wife, as well as producer Jim Rooney, who will induct Van Zandt into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. “This honor means a lot to his family,” says Will.

Crowell, who plans to record Van Zandt’s ‘No Place to Fall’ on his next album, recalls that Townes, “with a little too much fire water in him, could go in any direction. He could be really sarcastic -- which was actually dangerous and entertaining in its own way -- but sober, at 11 o’clock in the morning, Townes was a sweet and gentle soul, smart, kind and considerate.”

Adds Crowell: "It would just depend on which of those showed up."

This article first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of Billboard.