Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt was a country-folk guitarist and singer/songwriter who never had a hit of his own but whose reputation was made via covers of his songs by such well-known artists as Emmylou Harris and due to support from roots rockers such as Steve Earle.

He was born John Townes Van Zandt, on March 7, 1944, in Fort Worth, Texas, into a wealthy family whose ancestors had founded the city in the mid-19th century. Van Zandt began learning the guitar in his teens, after watching Elvis Presley perform on TV.

Instead of living on the money his family made in the oil business, Van Zandt pursued a career as a traveling singer of cover songs, in Houston and other areas of the Southwestern U.S. In his journeys, Van Zandt earned a reputation for drinking and rowdy behavior.

Many of the tales in his early songwriting days were inspired by alcohol consumption. But they were also literate — somber slices of life that soon amassed him a cult following.

1n 1967, Van Zandt issued his debut, First Album, and moved to Nashville. Though he was in country music's capital, Van Zandt issued his music on small labels such as Poppy/Tomato. Other early albums included For the Sake of the Song; High, Low and Inbetween; The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, featuring "Pancho and Lefty" (RealAudio excerpt); and Our Mother the Mountain, including "Tecumseh Valley."

In the late '70s, while living in Austin, Texas, Van Zandt received his widest exposure, via country-siren Harris' cover of "Pancho and Lefty." In 1983 Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a major country hit with their version. Two years before, Harris and Don Williams topped the country chart with Van Zandt's "If I Needed You."

Van Zandt moved back to Nashville in 1986. The following year he released At My Window and was championed by younger folk-rockers, including Earle and the Cowboy Junkies, with whom Van Zandt toured in 1990. He also wrote songs on the group's Black Eyed Man (1992).

Van Zandt died of a heart attack in Tennessee on Jan. 1, 1997, following hip surgery.

Earle said, "I still have a hard time imagining the rest of my life without Townes."

Following his death, Van Zandt's wife collected outtakes and demos, an effort that resulted in last year's A Far Cry From the Dead. Rear View Mirror and The Highway Kind also were issued posthumously, in 1997. In 1998 came Anthology: 1968–1979 and Abnormal, with the box set Live at the Old Quarter coming out last year.

Others who have covered Van Zandt's songs include Guy Clark and Doc Watson.

In 1998 Van Zandt's version of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" was used on the soundtrack to the dark Coen Brothers' comedy "The Big Lebowski."

Other birthdays on Tuesday: Chris White (Zombies), 57; Matthew Fisher (Procol Harum), 54; Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band), 54; Ernie Isley (Isley Brothers), 48; Jules Shear, 48; Matt Frenette (Loverboy), 46; Taylor Dayne, 37; Paul Davis (Happy Mondays), 34; and Randy Guss (Toad the Wet Sprocket), 33.